When they selected pitcher Stephen Strasburg with the top pick in baseball's amateur draft Tuesday night, it wasn't a surprise. If they manage to sign him quickly, it will be.
Considered one of the most talented prospects in the event's 45-year history, Strasburg boasts a blazing fastball that's been clocked at 102 mph - and some nasty breaking stuff, too. The right-hander went 13-1 with a 1.32 ERA this season for San Diego State, leading the Aztecs to their first postseason berth since 1991.
"He's a tremendous pitching package," Nationals acting general manager Mike Rizzo said. "We weren't going to pass on the best player in the draft."
But signing him might be a major challenge for the foundering Nationals, because agent Scott Boras is sure to seek a record contract that easily exceeds the $10.5 million Mark Prior received after he was drafted in 2001.
Teams have until Aug. 15 to sign draft choices who have college eligibility remaining, otherwise they lose their rights. Strasburg just completed his junior season.
"It's now in Washington's hands. They know what draft choices have gotten. Everybody knows. So they're on their own," commissioner Bud Selig said.
Strasburg leads Division I pitchers with 195 strikeouts in 109 innings this year, and was the only amateur on the U.S. Olympic team that won a bronze medal in Beijing last summer. He struck out 23 in a game against Utah last season and threw a no-hitter with 17 Ks against Air Force this year.
Strasburg went undrafted out of high school, but some think he has the ability to go straight from college to the big leagues.
"It's tough to say right now," Strasburg said in a phone interview on MLB Network. "We'll see what happens."
One person who thinks it's realistic is Strasburg's coach at San Diego State, Hall of Famer Tony Gwynn.
"I think he's a lot closer than people think," Gwynn said. "He's got the kind of stuff, the kind of baseball savvy, he could be successful."
Rizzo, however, sounded content to let Strasburg develop at a steady pace.
"There's no shortcut process in this," Rizzo said. "As far as I'm concerned, there's no pitcher or player that's major league ready coming out of the draft. They've never experienced the wear and tear of a professional season."
With the second pick, the Seattle Mariners chose North Carolina slugger Dustin Ackley, who has batted at least .400 for three consecutive seasons.
Also represented by Boras, Ackley has 22 home runs and 70 RBIs this year, helping North Carolina earn its fourth straight trip to the College World Series, which begins this weekend.
Ackley played mostly first base for the Tar Heels this season as he recovered from elbow ligament replacement surgery on his throwing arm. But his impressive speed makes him a candidate to switch to center field as a pro.
"Sweet swing," Mariners general manager Jack Zduriencik said. "We think this guy has the potential to be a middle-of-the-lineup hitter in the major leagues."
The San Diego Padres grabbed high school outfielder Donavan Tate at No. 3. The son of former NFL running back Lars Tate, he has committed to play baseball and football at North Carolina.
The fourth and fifth selections were players who recently soared up draft boards.
Pittsburgh went for Boston College catcher Tony Sanchez, a late bloomer, and Baltimore chose high school right-hander Matt Hobgood.
Eleven of the first 15 picks were pitchers, considered the strength of this unpredictable draft class. Eight in a row went from Nos. 5-12.
Only a few years ago, the baseball draft was conducted in virtual obscurity via conference call. This year, it went prime time for the first time.
With Selig announcing picks from the podium, the first round was broadcast live on MLB Network. The only thing missing was a Green Room filled with anxious prospects sporting flashy suits - nearly all declined the invitation.
One local prospect did show up, however. High school center fielder Mike Trout from New Jersey sat in a replica dugout with more than a dozen friends and family members, who rejoiced when he was selected 25th overall by the Los Angeles Angels.
"It's been a great experience," Trout said. "A once-in-a-lifetime deal."
Selig would like to see more prospects attend in the future. Several Hall of Famers were on hand as club representatives, including Al Kaline, Tommy Lasorda and Billy Williams.
"We can do more to boost this event," Selig said, "but this is a huge move in the right direction."
AP Sports Writers Joseph White in Washington and Gregg Bell in Seattle contributed to this report.
Copyright 2009 The Associated Press.