Ball in Nationals’ court

WASHINGTON — The team is terrible. The crowds are pitiful, especially for a new stadium. The public image of the franchise is about as bad as it can get. It’s a place where money is hoarded and victories are not, if popular sentiment is any indication.

The Washington Nationals are like many last-place teams that have come before them, regardless of the sport. And, like most of those teams, they own the prize that comes with being bad, a transcendent reward that can rescue an organization or set it back even further for years to come.

The No. 1 draft pick.

And, this year, it’s not just any No. 1. Everyone, it seems, can’t get enough of San Diego State pitcher Stephen Strasburg.

“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 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. 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 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 PR ground to make up after several missteps — including a long spat over stadium rent that angered citizens.

Having the No. 1 pick is one thing. Getting it right is another. The Nationals need only to look in their backyard 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 winning a Most Valuable Player 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 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. It’s easy to see the two sides already are 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.”

Nationals president Stan Kasten: “The hyperbole and mythology that the media has built up about him, I think has been a disservice to that one particular player because it’s been so extreme that it’s raised expectations to a highly unrealistic level.”

There’s no telling what Boras’ initial asking price will be — $30 million, $40 million, $50 million? The Nationals are sure to point out that’s an awful lot to give someone who never has thrown a pitch in the big leagues, while Boras no doubt will contend that even more has been given to older Japanese players with no MLB experience — the Boston Red Sox not long ago invested more than $100 million in Daisuke Matsuzaka.

The Nationals can say the economy is bad, attendance is down across the country and that it’s time to show some fiscal restraint. Boras will counter that major league revenues remain near record levels.

The Nationals can point out that it would throw everything askew for future drafts if an extraordinary amount is paid to one player.

Boras’ counterpoint could be that Strasburg is the type of once-a-generation player worthy of an extraordinary deal.

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.

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