Sports

Picking Splinters: Finally Making the Right Call

What does a $15 million signing bonus mean to you?

To me, the signal Stephen Strasburg’s contract sends to Nationals fans is a simple one: We care.

The “we” there is the team’s front office and ownership, namely interim GM Mike Rizzo, Team President Stan Kasten and the Lerner family. One of the biggest debates I have with my baseball-writing cohorts in New York is whether or not that group cares what happens on the field with the Nats. My answer has always been an unequivocal “yes,” but even then there were those that felt the Lerners were content to watch their team languish with its low payroll while they cashed shared revenue checks and focused on real estate close to Nationals Park.

Sure, the conspiracy went, they bought the team, but did they want the developments around the stadium more? Maybe they did bid on Mark Teixeira, but how hard did they actually pursue him?

It’s preposterous talk, but you could never really swipe it away. Until now.

They may not have had to cough up the $20 million many expected it would take to sign the No. 1 pitching prospect in this season’s draft, but $15 million is still $4.5 million more than the previous record awarded to a draft pick.

There are some within the league that believe this signing has finally put a stake in the heart of the baseball draft as we know it. Every year, there’s another pitcher signed for millions more than the MLB-recommended slot contract bonuses. And every year that adds more blood to the water and the sharks like agent Scott Boras keep growing. After this year’s draft, which also included a $6 million signing bonus for No. 2 pick Dustin Ackley, it’s as though a wave washed over the gore-filled set of Friday the 13th. Now, sharks like Boras are going to make Jaws look like Nemo.

That prospect is not going to make the Lerners too popular in the old boys network of MLB ownership. But while they may have estranged themselves from that company, they have endeared themselves to fans in the Washington, D.C. region.

Monday was a very real turning point for the Nationals’ franchise. Either Washington would pony up the cash and invest in its future, as the Lerners have promised the District from the start of MLB’s ownership search, or they’d tuck their hands in their pockets and take a seat next to the Royals and Pirates at baseball’s kiddie table. After that, the most pressing question would be whether or not Pittsburgh was done eating its tater tots.

You see, once you’re seated at the kiddie table, it’s tough to get back up. Suddenly every free agent asking price is giving you sticker shock and, eventually, no one even looks your way … unless it’s Julian Tavarez in a club at four in the morning.

But the Nationals have avoided that destiny and now there’s one less question mark in Washington. Strasburg won’t turn this team around by himself, but now we know that the Lerners are likely to go out and find him some capable friends through free agency over the next several seasons. Now we know that when the front office has said it doesn’t make sense to spend on big contracts when the farm system is not yet turning out viable crops, it wasn’t just rhetoric.

Do I expect the team to go out and chase the big names like Matt Holliday or Rich Harden in free agency this winter? It’s probably too soon, but down the line, that could be a very different story. That’s the difference $15 million makes.

Further tweezing: Remember when the Swine Flu was a crazy pandemic that was going to kill us all? I do. Then U.S. soccer player Landon Donovan apparently played through a match against Mexico with the virus, performing at a high athletic level at high altitude. Maaaayyyybe we overreacted a little bit. Just sayin’.

• On Wednesday, headlines screamed about Brett Favre’s return (again) to football. On Wednesday, I screamed “Shoot me in the face.”