SEATTLE — It's the showdown for the ages. The dark ages. Forget about the exciting pennant races in every division except the AL West. The real drama in September is going to be the battle for the No. 1 overall draft pick next year.
That dishonor goes to the team with the worst record in baseball. Through Friday, the Mariners, Padres and Nationals were separated by a mere 3½ games. Anything can still happen — and it will probably be ugly.
By a fluke of scheduling, all three teams played each other this year. The Mariners beat the Padres five out of six, but lest they get to boasting, note that the Nationals swept three games in Seattle in June. That indignity was enough to hasten the firing of John McLaren.
The Padres took two of three from the Nats in May in their only meeting so far, with an epic showdown in D.C. still to come, Sept. 19-21. Mark your calendar — and then burn it.
At least the "winner" of the worst-team sweepstakes has the consolation of being first in line for San Diego State phenom Stephen Strasburg. The only collegiate on the U.S. Olympic team, the right-hander struck out 23 in a game against Utah this year and is the consensus No. 1 overall pick.
"It's a good year to pick No. 1," said John Manuel, editor of Baseball America. "I love Strasburg, but that's hardly original. He compares favorably to Mark Prior at a similar stage of his career. . . . He's an elite, elite guy and could move very quickly."
ESPN's Keith Law, senior baseball analyst for Scouts, Inc., and a former executive with the Toronto Blue Jays, is just as bullish on Strasburg.
"I'd say he's less than two years away (from the majors)," Law said. "He's the one guy out there that's a No. 1 starter."
And therein lies the rub. The falloff after Strasburg might be precipitous, though as Law cautions, it's a bit early to say that definitively. It's possible that one or more players will break out during the college season before next June's draft. It always happens.
That said, "No. 2 will probably be a good-sized drop off from Strasburg," Law said.
As it stands now, here are the names being bandied about at the top of the draft, behind Strasburg (with comments from Manuel):
—Alex White, pitcher from University of North Carolina. "He has an electric arm and plus athletic ability."
—Kyle Gibson, pitcher from University of Missouri. "Average fastball, projectable body, wipeout slider."
—Grant Green, shortstop from USC. "Has torn up the Cape Cod League."
—Dustin Ackley, first baseman-outfielder from North Carolina. "A ridiculous hitter. He's fascinating. He has an elbow issue, can't throw, so he plays 1B. If I had to compare him to a player, the only one I can come up with is Tony Gwynn, because he has hit .400 two years in a row at UNC with speed, etc."
All those players are collegians. Last year's No. 1 overall pick by Tampa Bay, Tim Beckham, was a high-school shortstop, but 2009 is considered a down year for high-schoolers, at least at the elite level.
"There's no high-school guys, right now, worth taking up there," said Law.
Law's top-rated high-schooler is Donavan Tate from Cartersville, Ga., son of former Georgia running back Lars Tate and himself a football star.
"He's an unbelievable athlete, and he has shown a better feel for baseball than expected," said Law.
Law agreed that 2009 is a great year to pick first — but maybe not so good to pick second or third.
"If you're drafting seventh, you'll be fine," he said. "If you're drafting second, it might be tough."
And that's what makes the three-way battle among Seattle, San Diego and Washington so, uh, compelling (rhymes with smelling).
You think things are bad in Seattle? Well, you're right. The more you look at the problems in this organization, the more you wonder if any executive in his right mind would want to take on the job of general manager.
But the other teams are messed up, too. Take the Nationals — please.
They've been shut out 18 times; are spending more money on guys on the disabled list or released than those on the active roster; failed Friday to sign their No. 1 draft pick (No. 9 overall) and lost his rights; have the lowest television ratings in the majors, by far — reportedly, a mere 9,000 households a night are watching; and their GM, Jim Bowden, is reported to be under investigation by MLB and federal authorities in the Dominican money-skimming case.
Other than that, and the 44-78 record, and the .242 team average, things are going swimmingly in D.C.
Now on to the Padres, described thusly this week by CBS Sportsline's Scott Miller: "The '08 Padres have been sabotaged by poor personnel decisions, underperforming players, injuries, a string of disastrous drafts and, most noticeably, a change in philosophy as general manager Kevin Towers' autonomy has eroded with CEO Sandy Alderson and special assistant Paul DePodesta taking more control of baseball decisions."
Other than that, and the ugly divorce that owner John Moores is going through that might lead to a mass reduction in player payroll next year, and an offense that rivals Washington's for ineffectiveness, things are going swimmingly in San Diego.
The Mariners' deficiencies have been well-chronicled. Other than the gaping holes in the roster, the unsettled executive and managerial restructuring and the fragmented clubhouse, things are going swimmingly in Seattle.
So, who's going to finish last among these three teams and win the Strasburg Sweepstakes?
Too gross to call.