Nationals ink top pick at the last minute
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HOWARD FENDRICH AP Sports Writer WASHINGTON (AP)
The Washington Nationals knew they needed to sign No. 1 overall draft pick Stephen Strasburg, and they did. They needed him because of his pitching talent, his 100 mph fastballs and knee-buckling breaking balls. They needed him to ramp up the remaking of a last-place team on pace for a second consecutive 100-loss season. And they needed him to create a good vibe around a team that's suffered sagging attendance at a new stadium and all manner of bad publicity. The easy part was drafting Strasburg in June. The hard part was getting him to agree to a contract by the deadline of midnight as Monday turned to Tuesday. Washington got it done, agreeing with Strasburg on a record-breaking contract worth about $15 million over four years. The struggling team and the hard-throwing right-hander resolved everything at "11:58 and 43 seconds," Nationals president Stan Kasten said. "People thought it would take to the last minute," Kasten said, smiling. "We didn't even need that last minute." The deal is worth roughly 50 percent more than the previous highest guaranteed deal for a player in baseball's amateur draft, the $10.5 million pitcher Mark Prior got from the Chicago Cubs in 2001. "We thought we signed the player for his value," acting Nationals general manager Mike Rizzo said, calling Strasburg "the most coveted amateur player in the history of the draft." Strasburg gets a four-year contract covering 2009-12 that will pay him slightly more than $15.1 million. The exact amount depends on prorating his $400,000 salary for this year, based on the date the contract is of- ficial. If no agreement had been reached by the deadline, the team would have relinquished its rights to Strasburg. A year ago, Washington failed to reach an agreement with its first-round selection, Missouri pitcher Aaron Crow. At 6-foot-4, 220 pounds, and with a fastball that can reach 100 mph, Strasburg is projected to be precisely the sort of power starter the Nationals have lacked since moving from Montreal to the nation's capital before the 2005 season. "He's chomping at the bit to get out on the mound. He's ultra-, ultracompetitive," Rizzo said, "and I think he was getting a little tired of sitting around the house." Strasburg went 13-1 for the Aztecs last season, leading Division I pitchers in ERA (1.35) and strikeouts (195 in 109 innings), and won the Golden Spikes award for the top U.S. amateur baseball player. The expectation is that Strasburg will join third baseman Ryan Zimmerman as one of the faces of a rebuilding franchise heading to its fourth last-place NL East finish in five seasons. The Nationals hope Strasburg can help boost interest in the team. Since opening their $600 million-plus ballpark for the 2008 season, the Nationals have had a hard time attracting fans: They are averaging about 23,100 spectators this season, worse than all but two NL clubs. Whatever the PR benefit to the signing, the Nationals are most excited about Strasburg's ability to throw a baseball. After all, highly touted rookie starter Jordan Zimmermann needs reconstructive elbow surgery and is expected to be sidelined for the next 12 to 18 months. Plus, the five pitchers currently holding spots in Washington's starting rotation are a combined 16-23 with a 4.52 ERA this season. "He's got the skill set that all frontof- the-rotation starting pitchers have. He's a big, physical guy. He throws extremely hard. He's got a solid repertoire of pitches and he throws them all for strikes," Rizzo said. "Barring injury," the acting GM added, "this kid should have a long, illustrious career."