It seems that the Washington Nationals will select San Diego State pitcher Steve Strasburg with the first pick in the MLB draft on June 9th. What does this mean for the Nationals and what does it mean for baseball, since Scott Boras is supposedly looking for a 50 million dollar contract. Just to speculate, what would we Orioles fans want our club to do if he were to drop to our 5th pick over sign-ability issues. Is a college pitcher, even one that has been hailed as the greatest pitching prospect of this generation, worth that kind of money. Of course the answer is unknown. If he turns into Nolan Ryan then its a steal, but history is littered with many “can’t miss” types that missed.
Lets start with the positives. Steve Strasburg is a 6′ 5″ 220 pound pitching machine that is 12-0 in 13 starts with a 1.34 ERA this year. His WHIP is under .8 and he has 174 SO’s and only 18 walks in 94 innings. I’m not sure which is more impressive, his 9.5 to 1 strikeout to walks ratio or just that he averages almost 2 K’s per inning. Either way he has been just plain dominant. He was the only amateur on the 2008 US Olympic team and threw a one-hitter against the Netherlands. How does he do all this you ask? With a fastball that has hit 103, a slider in the mid-90’s, and a great curveball. He has all the tools to be a star. Really there is only one reason not to take him.
That reason is money. His agent wants a 6 yr/50 million dollar deal. That would be a similar contract to what Daisuke Matsuzaka signed when he came over from Japan. Matsuzaka had already proven himself a star both in the high-level play of the Japaneses league and in the 2006 World Baseball Classic. Strasburg, for all his upside, is performing his magic against BYU and TCU. Even in the Olympics, when he pitched against Cuba he only lasted four innings and gave up six hits and 3 runs. There is no way to know if his arm will hold up under the more rigorous professional schedule of 35 or more starts a season. This is true of any draft pick, but they don’t usually come with such a price tag.
The past gives us many warning signs of paying young pitchers too much. A look at recent pitchers taken number one overall includes Paul Wilson, Matt Anderson, Brien Taylor, and Bryan Bullington. Here is what their teams have gotten in return.
1994- Paul Wilson, NY Mets 40 career wins, but only 5 were for the Mets.
1997- Matt Anderson, Detroit 15 wins and 26 saves, but out of the league since 2005.
2002- Bryan Bullington, Pittsburgh 0-5 career record and of course no longer with the Pirates.
1991- Brien Taylor, NY Yankees He was signed to 1.5 million dollar deal, easily the largest signed by a draft pick at the time. He never pitched a single major league inning. Mostly because of injury, but that still highlights the risk in giving that kind of money to an unproven pitcher.
Two other pitchers that weren’t the overall number one give an even better example of the risks involved with signing Strasburg. In 2000, Matt Harrington was a dominant high school pitcher that had scouts drooling. Since he was looking for a 5 million dollar deal he dropped in the draft to the seventh overall pick. The Colorado Rockies loved his 98mph fastball and eventually did meet his demands for 5 million. They insisted on some clauses that eliminated arbitration for him for an extra year. He decided to refuse the offer and pitch in an independent league to raise his bargaining power for the next draft. His stuff never translated against professional hitters and his numbers declined each year he pitched in the minors. He never signed anything more than the minimum type minor league deal and he now works for 11 dollars an hour at a tire company. It is sad for him, but a good story for the Rockies; and a warning to major league clubs about projecting amateur pitchers. One aside to the story, while Harrington works on tires, his much less acclaimed high school teammate Dana Eveland has found success. Eveland was drafted in the 16th round by the A’s and while Harrington turned down 5 million, he signed for peanuts. Now Eveland is in the starting rotation in Oakland.
Todd Van Poppel…….anyone who was old enough to follow baseball in 1990 remembers that name. The Texas high school pitcher was everyone’s hot prospect. He was surely the best player in that draft class. He also had a scholarship offer to Stanford and told everyone it was going to take over a million (a big deal at that time) to get him to walk away from that. The Atlanta Braves had the first overall pick and it was well known that all things being equal they wanted Van Poppel. The intrigue going into draft day was were they willing to play ball with Van Poppel’s salary demands and sign him to a major league deal. In the end they decided to go with signability and Van Poppel fell to 14th and the Oakland A’s. Drafting on signability is a dirty word in the NFL where guys that high are expected to be major contributors right away, but in baseball where it usually takes a few years to develop into a major league player; maybe its not as dumb. Lets compare what the Braves and A’s got that day.
Atlanta- Chipper Jones 3B a lifetime .310 batting average and 412 HR’s in 15 seasons entrenched in the Atlanta batting order.
Oakland- Todd Van Poppel SP 40-52 record in ten erratic seasons, of which only four were in Oakland.
Obviously, Atlanta made the right decision that day. Maybe it was luck, maybe not. I’m not saying don’t draft Strasburg. Maybe he really is that good and 50 million will look like a great deal in 2013. I’m just saying consider the past. The ball is in Stan Kasten’s court in two weeks. What would you do?