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Old 06-07-09, 11:02 AM
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Nats pin hopes on Strasburg

By Joseph White | The Associated Press

"Sometimes there are very special players that are able to change a franchise, able to label a franchise, able to put a franchise on the map," said Nationals reliever Ron Villone, a veteran of 12 teams in 15 major-league seasons. "This year, I guess there's a young man who's got a once-in-a-lifetime arm, as far as we've seen, and you don't see that every day.

"I'm a baseball lover all my life. I see some guys who were just born to hit, born to play, born to run, born to throw. I think this year's there's a guy who was born to throw."

The amateur baseball draft, which takes place Tuesday, usually lacks the excitement of the annual affairs in the NFL, NBA and NHL, where the No. 1 selection is expected to make a quick impact and soon become a franchise player — or at least a perennial All-Star. Strasburg makes this year an exception. The 20-year-old with a high-90s fastball and the wicked slider is, to use a popular phrase of the moment, shovel-ready for the big time.

Think LeBron James in Cleveland. Peyton Manning in Indianapolis. Sidney Crosby in Pittsburgh. That's the vision of what the right-hander from San Diego State might do for Washington, home of the worst team in the majors by far, where 15-month-old Nationals Park sits more than half empty on most nights, where radio and television ratings are embarrassingly low, where owner Ted Lerner has much Page Ranking ground to make up after several missteps — including a long spat over stadium rent that angered citizens.

Of course, having the No. 1 pick is one thing. Getting it right is another. The Nationals need only to look in their own back yard to see the best and the worst.

Alex Ovechkin has been the model No. 1 for the NHL's Capitals, leading them from last place to the playoffs while earning an MVP trophy along the way. The NBA's Wizards, meanwhile, needed several years to recover from the decision to place the franchise's hopes on No. 1 underachiever Kwame Brown.

For the Nationals, the choice of which player to take is obvious: Strasburg. But the franchise must decide how quickly to bring him along, how many innings he should pitch, how much — if any — they should tinker with his delivery.

And, above all, they must sign him.

That could be the sticky part. Strasburg's agent is hard-dealer Scott Boras, who is expected to ask for a record contract — far beyond the current high-water mark of $10.5 million that Mark Prior received in 2001. Read between the lines and it's easy to see that the two sides are already staking out positions.

Boras: "Having gone through 36 drafts, Stephen is the best college pitcher I've seen. It's a combination of stuff, his ability to throw three pitches with command, his character, and also the potential to be even better."

Boras can note that the Nationals caught plenty of flak for failing to sign last year's first-round draft pick, No. 9 overall selection Aaron Crow from Missouri. A team that can't get its first pick signed for two years running is essentially postponing its future and risking more ire from fans.

Kasten claims there's no connection between the two.

"I think they're completely independent," Kasten said. "I don't see how it puts any extra pressure on us at all. I think it gives some insight into how we operate. We made the highest offer for any pitcher in the draft last year, and that's all we were going to do. And if that wasn't good enough, we walked away."

Needless to say, these negotiations will take a while. If the No. 1 pick isn't signed, the Nationals will receive the No. 2 pick next year as compensation and the player would become eligible to be drafted next year.

If Strasburg's asking price is too high, Kasten says that's exactly what will happen.

"We expect to sign this player," Kasten said. "But we're also prepared if that doesn't happen."

Meanwhile, the players in the Nationals clubhouse are enduring loss after loss. One player alone can't do everything to turn a team around, but all are hoping Strasburg is a big part of the solution.

"I'm not going to go out and say he's a LeBron James or anything like that, but I sure hope he can come in here do the things that LeBron has done for Cleveland," outfielder Willie Harris said. "But at the same time give the kid a chance to get his feet wet. Don't put so much pressure on the kid."

It might be too late for that. As Strasburg is about to find out, pressure is standard equipment that comes with being No. 1.

I hope whoever drafts this kid, they give him a chance and expose him to the majors after some minor league experience. Anybody remember a kid named 'David Clyde', an 18 year old drafted by the Texas Rangers in the early '70s. Great expectations only to fizzle without the proper handling. --- alh1020

Nats pin hopes on Strasburg --
Don't take life too seriously; No one gets out alive.
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