comparisons to Roger Clemens among others.
John W. McDonough/SI
The best player in the major league baseball draft this year is Stephen Strasburg, a flamethrowing right-handed pitcher from San Diego State who has been compared -- seriously -- to Roger Clemens (the really good version). The worst team in major league baseball last year was the Washington Nationals, who have been compared -- seriously -- to, well, the Washington Senators (the really bad version). And so it seems fairly obvious that when the first pick of the draft is announced on June 9, Bud Selig will announce that Mr. Strasburg is going to Washington.
Except it isn't that obvious, and because it isn't, it may not happen after all.
There are rumors, detailed today by SI.com's Jon Heyman, that Strasburg's agent, Scott Boras, is prepared to establish a financial threshold for any team that drafts Strasburg that would make Manny Ramirez's outrageous financial request from this recent offseason look reasonable by comparison. (Up to $50 million for a kid who has never thrown a pitch in the major leagues? I'm not sure if baseball's general managers know whether to laugh or cry at that figure.)
The Nationals dilemma is a serious one, and it further complicates what is already the most puzzling drafting process in sports. They can either draft Strasburg and hope they can sign him to what is sure to be a record-setting contract, at dollars they might not have spent on an established big league player, or they can pass on him and hope that they aren't embarrassed in a few years in a Sam-Bowie-over-Michael-Jordan kind of way. They may not be able to afford his contract demands, but in the cutthroat NL East (and a competitive baseball market like Baltimore/D.C.), can they really afford not to take him?
The first problem here is that the draft is not the cure-all it can be in other sports. Unlike the NFL and NBA drafts in which ready-made stars transition smoothly from college to the pros, in baseball only the rarest gems can do the same, meaning that top picks are still a few years away from reaching the majors, much less contributing to a team's success. But Strasburg is considered a rare player who could step into a big-league rotation almost from Day 1. And the worst team in the game, according to the draft's reason for existing, should be able to reap that benefit.
Secondly, baseball's draft rules are hurting, not helping, the very teams the draft was instituted to aid in the first place. The draft was established in 1965 so that teams (cough, the Yankees, cough) couldn't continue their cycle of domination by allowing their on-field success to fund their scouting operation that included more men on the ground and a bigger checkbook from which to entice the nation's best young talent. And for a while it worked. But once free agency arrived a decade later, richer teams once again had an avenue to simply outbid their poorer counterparts for premium talent. And unlike the farmhands available in the draft, these were established big leaguers.
The disparity only grew more pronounced with the explosion of baseball abroad and the rapidly growing influx of foreign-born players, who are not eligible for the draft. Once again, rich teams were able to afford the scouts (and in some cases, the development academies) to identify the best non-U.S. players sooner, and had the money to sign them.
Further complicating things is that, unlike in basketball and football, baseball teams cannot trade their draft picks. So if the Nationals can't afford the scouting, development or price tag of most of the best foreign-born players and aren't allowed to draft them, they are forced to rely even more heavily on U.S.-born players. But if those players are too expensive, the Nats aren't allowed to leverage their top pick into cash, major-league ready talent, other draft picks or top prospects (or some combination thereof). As a result, they are finding that the No. 1 overall pick may be as much a curse as the dreadful season that got them the top pick in the first place.
This isn't the first time baseball's draft has caused problems for teams and it won't be the last. The solution seems obvious, if unlikely to actually be enacted: Either put a hard cap on the signing bonuses of draft picks or allow teams to trade their picks. (And it wouldn't hurt to open up the draft to include international players, thus allowing all teams, not just the richest ones, to have access to this ever-increasing pool of talent.)
Given the inexact science that is the draft, it's as likely as not that Stephen Strasburg lives up to his hype and his (eventual) contract. But before he heads to the Hall of Fame, or even an All-Star Game, or perhaps even before he throws a single big-league pitch, he can be an agent of chance in baseball. The player that finally made baseball stand up and realize that the winds of change need to blow through the draft.