The clock is ticking. The Nationals and their No. 1 draft pick have until midnight to get a deal done. And they're all but guaranteed to wait until literally the 11 o'clock hour before commencing with serious negotiations.
Why does this scenario sound familiar?
Actually, we in the Washington media and you in the Nats fan base should take comfort in knowing we've been through this rodeo before. Thanks to Aaron Crow in 2008 and Stephen Strasburg in 2009, we know exactly what to expect tonight when the Bryce Harper negotiations come to a head.
There's no mystery here, no incomprehension of the situation. We know that even though the Nats drafted Harper first in the country way back on June 7 (before Strasburg ever set foot on the mound at Nationals Park) the two sides have done little since then other than exchange some pleasantries and offer one or two well-calculated misdirection plays. (Harper's really going to post on his Facebook page that he's looking forward to returning to the College of Southern Nevada this year? Please.)
But we're not worried that the lack of a deal, or even a formal exchange of numbers, is a sign of discord between the two entities. If anything, it's relaxing to know the process has played out exactly as everyone predicted, because this is the way it always plays out.
The draft-and-sign process is seriously flawed, everyone knows that. It will probably be overhauled next winter when the collective bargaining agreement expires, as Stan Kasten suggested. But until that happens, this is the system in place, so the Nats, Harper and Scott Boras have no choice but to play along and take advantage of it.
Boras' only leverage is the midnight deadline, so it behooves him to take it as close to the wire as possible, hoping the threat of not signing Harper forces Mike Rizzo into forking over a few more dollars.
Rizzo, meanwhile, can't go and offer up a record-setting signing bonus to Harper in mid-June, because Bud Selig doesn't want the market being set that early in the summer and thus giving Boras leverage to demand more for the rest of his many clients. As much as MLB tries to get teams to use the slotting system for signing bonuses, the league office isn't exactly going out of its way to discourage GMs from breaking the bank on top-tier talent like Strasburg and Harper.
So, everyone just sits around for two months waiting for this day to come. All the while, Harper (who by all accounts just wants to play baseball) loses two months' worth of minor-league experience. Which means his eventual major-league debut could be delayed by two months.
Perhaps Strasburg came to realize this himself along the way. Had he simply signed the day after last year's draft, he would have immediately reported to Viera, pitched in the minor leagues last summer and quite possibly made the Nationals' Opening Day rotation this year instead of being forced to wait until June 8. Maybe that's why Strasburg offered up his surprisingly blunt take on the Harper situation after yesterday's game. He knows how agonizing the last two months have been for Harper, and he knows the negative label that is thrust upon draft picks who wait til the last minute to sign record-setting deals.
Strasburg, of course, got the deal of all deals: a four-year, $15.1 million, major-league contract, shattering all previous records. Harper won't get anything close to that tonight, for several reasons.
1) Though he's been hyped up plenty, he still hasn't been touted to the extent Strasburg was.
2) He's only 17, four years younger than Strasburg was last summer. Thus, Harper almost certainly won't get a major-league contract. The Nats were willing to do that with Strasburg because they knew he'd be in the big leagues within a year. Harper is at least two years away, probably three. Why pay him guaranteed, big-league money (in the millions) and waste a spot on the 40-man roster for a guy who's learning how to play right field in Hagerstown?
Harper, however, can still be a record-setter. He could still get the largest signing bonus ever given to a draft pick. The record currently belongs to Strasburg, who got $7.5 million in signing bonuses (paid out in three installments through January 10, 2011) to go along with his $7.6 million in salaries through 2012).
The most money ever paid out on a minor-league contract was $6.25 million from the Padres to Donavan Tate last year. That's the minimum threshold for Harper to cross, though don't be surprised if he surpasses Strasburg's $7.5 million as well.
Ultimately, figure Harper's final number falls between $7.5 million and $9 million. It's record-setting, but not outrageous. And along with Strasburg's deal from a year ago, plus the expected over-slot signings of fellow 2010 draftees Sammy Solis, A.J. Cole and Robbie Ray, the Nationals will have established they are willing to spend money on draft picks. No one in baseball will have spent more the last two drafts.
All of this, of course, has been known since June. This storyline has been written for months. Unfortunately, baseball's screwy draft-and-sign process forces everyone to play this silly game of chicken until both sides finally relent at 11:59 p.m. tonight.
Fortunately, we all know better than to start panicking now, because we've been through this dance before.