The law of unintended consequences is a powerful thing.
In the mid-1970s, the national speed limit was lowered from 70 mph to 55 to help stem a rising death rate on the nation's interstate highway system. Incredibly, the number of deaths increased over the next decade as drivers felt safer and stopped wearing their seat belts.
In 2001, America attacked Afghanistan to end the terrorist threat against the United States by the Taliban. Today, a resurgent Taliban is marching into Pakistan and may be after that nation's nuclear arsenal.
And last year, the Washington Nationals drew a line in the sand in their negotiations with their top draft pick Aaron Crow, and when the clock struck midnight, the Nationals failed to sign him over a couple hundred thousand dollars.
No team has failed to sign their top draft pick two years in a row, which means the Nationals have to—they just have to—sign their No. 1 pick in this June’s draft.
The only problem with this is that the pick also happens to be the top pick in the entire draft—which means the Nationals are going to have to pick, and sign, Stephen Strasburg, perhaps the best amateur pitcher of the modern era.
The Nationals face a daunting task—financially, emotionally, and historically—in trying to sign Strasburg.
Strasburg's agent is none other than Scott Boras, an agent proven to lie, cheat, steal, and do whatever it takes to get his client a contract far above his value, while at the same time financially destroying that team during the years of the contract.
In other words, if the Washington Nationals want to sign Strasburg, they are going to have to pay higher than his market value.
Actually, much higher.
So, the question remains, is it worth it? Rather, is he worth it?
Well, the answer is yes, and no.
While some have suggested that it will take more than $50 million to get a deal done, most feel that a major league contract of six years, totaling $15-20 million, should be about right.
Here, then, are the top five reasons why the Nationals have to sign Stephen Strasburg this summer, regardless of the cost.
1. The Nationals are desperately in need of some positive press.
Though the team's 4-14 start this year isn't indicative of its roster talent, baseball writers across the country are making the team this year's big joke. I'm talking Henny Youngman "Take my wife, please!" kind of joke.
You know, the kind of joke that isn't funny because it hits too close to home.
The Lerner family—owners of the Nationals—is considered cheap and unwilling to field a winner. If they don't sign Strasburg, they (and the Nationals) will be written off as a major league team with minor league players and Little League aspirations.
2. Stephen Strasburg is a great player.
It's hard to imagine that the tall, svelte, muscular right-hander was once a pudgy 92 mph high school pitcher who wasn't recruited in his senior season. At San Diego State, however, he became embarrassed by his lack of conditioning, was asked to quit the team by the strength coach, lost 30 pounds, and emerged from all of that with a 100 mph fastball and a curveball that “bends like Beckham.”
He was a closer his first season with the Aztecs and has started the last two years. He was great as a closer, but he's been unhittable as a starter.
In the last two seasons, Strasburg has a record of 17-3 (including 9-0 this year) with a 1.53 ERA. In 167 innings, he has allowed just 106 hits and 29 walks while striking out 268.
No, that's not a typo. He struck out 268 batters, roughly 16 each game.
Most scouts believe he'll be in the Nationals' rotation by August and will be their No. 1 starter the day he first dons his “Curly W" cap.
Yeah, he's that good.
3. With Strasburg in the rotation, the Nationals might well contend in 2010.
Jordan Zimmermann, a 22-year-old rookie from Wisconsin-Stevens Point, has won his first two games since arriving in Washington, and every scout who has seen him says he is a top of the rotation starter. He currently leads all Nationals starters with a 2.38 ERA.
Add John Lannan (the team's best starter last year), Scott Olsen (600 Major League innings at age 25), and promising rookie Shairon Martis, and the Nationals are capable of winning every time they take the field.
Though the team's attendance in their first year in Washington was great, it has been declining since. The Nationals averaged 4,000 fewer fans per game in their first year at their new park in 2008 than in their first year in aging RFK Stadium in 2005. Their 29,005 fans per game last year was 13th in the National League, and they are averaging barely 20,000 in 2009.
Baseball in Washington can succeed, but, as in other cities dominated by an NFL team, they have to win to draw big. The signing of Strasburg will create a buzz inside the Beltway, and Strasburg could add as many as 15-20 wins to the team's yearly total for the next decade.
5. Major league players need to know that the Nationals are players for their services.
Until Adam Dunn signed in February, the team had been rejected more often than a computer geek at prom time. Getting Dunn said something, as did the signing of reliever Joe Beimel a month later. Blow a billion or so on a kid from San Diego State, and I can guarantee you—yes, guarantee—that the Nationals will sign one more impact player this winter and be ready to contend in 2010.
That's how it works; no teenager wants to be the first one on the dance floor, and no baseball player wants to be the first to sign with a really bad team. They need a reason to sign.
Stephen Strasburg would give them that reason.
Things are really looking up for the Nationals, with quality players like Nick Johnson, Ryan Zimmerman, Adam Dunn, Elijah Dukes, Austin Kearns, and Josh Willingham in the middle of the lineup. Their starting rotation, with Zimmermann, Lannan, and Olsen, is both impressive and young.
But there are places, like the back end of the rotation and the entire bullpen, that need to be improved. One trade, one free agent signing, and Strasburg in the rotation, and the Nationals will shed that laughingstock persona once and for all.
Granted, millions of dollars is a lot of money to spend on a 20-year-old, but you have to remember, this is Washington we're talking about. If Barack Obama can spend $500 billion a month, the Lerner family can certainly come up with a paltry $15-20 million for a kid who can throw 101 miles per hour.
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