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Thomas Boswell's Impressions of Strasburg

Stephen Strasburg is as close to a clone of Mark Prior and Kerry Wood as you'll see. And he's probably just about as good a prospect, despite his loss to Virginia on Friday night. All three pitchers are listed as 6 feet 5 and about 225 pounds. All had fastballs at or near 100 mph but were made truly special by their dazzling breaking pitches -- the kind of pitch, unfortunately, that puts the most strain on the arm. Prior, after USC, got the biggest draft contract for a pitcher ever -- $10.5 million. Strasburg belongs in the same category. But, at least based on his work in the two most important games of his career so far -- his loss to Cuba in the Olympics and his loss to Virginia in an NCAA regional on Friday night -- he isn't better. He's not on a different level. He's not The Best Pitching Prospect Ever. He's the best one since the last one.

That opinion comes with one (big) caveat. Both times I've seen Strasburg -- up close in Beijing, allowing three runs in four innings on 75 pitches against Cuba, and on TV Friday night -- his fastball ranged from 93 to 97 mph. Only two pitches registered 98 against U-Va. In both games, hitters reacted as if his fastball was straight, with little movement, fouling off lots of pitches, taking him deep in counts, making good contact on fastballs that got much of the plate and, in general, not looking overmatched, except by his breaking balls. So where is the "consistently 98- to 102-mph" pitcher the scouts rave about? Where did those 5 mph go? The straighter your heater, the faster it better travel to compensate. Maybe I've seen his two "off" nights. Cuba and the Cavs are the only teams to beat him in those nine months.

Comparisons to Prior and Wood are high praise. Prior went 18-6 for the Cubs at age 23 with a 2.43 ERA and 245 strikeouts. However, arm injuries drove him out of the sport by age 25. Wood struck out 20 men in a game (sharing the MLB record) and had 266 strikeouts in a season, but he never won more than 14 games or had an ERA under 3.20 for the Cubs. Arm problems have made Wood, 31, an Indians reliever.

Against Virginia, Strasburg also brought to mind one other Phenom of the Century -- Ben McDonald, the 6-7 alligator wrestler from LSU with the high-90s fastball, the big 12-to-6 curve, exceptional command and hype so enormous that it undermined his self confidence. Long homers, and base runners around him, brought out the worst in Big Ben. In those first two innings against U-Va., Strasburg used 49 pitches, allowed five hits, including a 410-foot home run, threw two wild pitches and made a nervous fielding error when he bobbled an easy dribbler.

By the time his seven innings of eight-hit work were done, he had 15 strikeouts and no walks -- an accurate testament to his potential -- but he didn't overwhelm the top four hitters in the Cavs' order, who went 6 for 18. Even Virginia's No. 9 hitter, 5-7, 140-pound freshman Keith Werman, lined a single off Strasburg.

So discount the Best Ever at His Age talk. At 20, Dwight Gooden went 24-4 with a 1.53 ERA, threw 16 complete games and had 268 strikeouts for the Mets. At 19, he was 17-9. More likely, Strasburg is on a track like Prior, who started only nine games in the minors (79 strikeouts in 51 innings) before being called up quickly by the Cubs at 21 and going 6-6 as a rookie. Strasburg may have a bit less poise than the extremely mature Prior and need more time in the minors.

For those who like to point out that Stasburg had even more spectacular college stats than Prior, the Virginia game may have offered an explanation. At USC, Prior probably faced tougher competition. Virginia, now ranked No. 7 in the country after winning the ACC tournament, was only the No. 6 seed in that tournament.

For Nationals fans, who have endured so much, the appearance of a mortal but still marvelous Strasburg may -- with the proper cock of the head -- be good news. It shouldn't be (quite) as hard to draft and then sign Strasburg now. You don't pay $50 million, or probably $20 million, for a pitcher who loses a pitching duel to a U-Va. freshman, gives up a long homer, staggers through the first two innings, allows eight hits, looks like a jittery 20-year-old and desn't knock the bat out of the hands of a 140-pound freshman batting ninth.

On the other hand, you're probably going to give more than $10.5 million to a pitcher who bounced back to strike out 15 men, walked nobody and looks like a guy (Prior) who went 18-6 at 22 and resembles another fellow (Wood) who struck out 20 men in a game. As for nettlesome thoughts of Big Ben and arm injuries, banish them from the mind.

Strasburg isn't perfect. But he's mighty good. And, even in a sport in which young pitchers with huge elbow-torquing curves seem born to break your heart, he's worth the risk.

By Thomas Boswell  |  May 30, 2009; 4:11 PM ET
 
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Comments

Great writing Boz, some of your best work this year. I'd hate to see this kids arm blow out throwing breaking stuff all day around the likes of Howard, Rollins, Delgado, Cabrera and all the other brilliant fastball hitters in the nl east, so. . draft him, pay him $20 mil (two of which will go to Boras I assume), and then groom him, ala Jonathan Papplebon, to be the lights out closer who only has to use that breaking ball a few times a night. Last time I checked there was a gaping hole in the roster where a lights our closer should be.

Posted by: hsukGO | May 30, 2009 4:39 PM | Report abuse

Bos, great summary and we appreciate it. But here's what worries me: you may say "discount the Best Ever at His Age talk." You may say "don't pay $50 million or probably $20 million."

But Scott Boras either doesn't share that opinion or is going to act like he doesn't. What if he makes it clear that he's still expecting $20-30 million or more?

The Nats have already become the Official Laughingstock of Major League Baseball(tm) and an easy source for a cheapshot column by most of the writers in the country. Those guys don't seem to want to share your logical impression of Strasburg. It's too much fun to joke about "wonder how the Nats will screw up this one?"

Do they dare pass on this guy if they don't think Boras will be realistic? Can they handle the backlash? In other words, at this point in the franchise's development, can they afford to be logical about this or do they pay him what he wants for PR purposes alone?

Posted by: baltova1 | May 30, 2009 4:45 PM | Report abuse

Boz' comments are on point. You can't pay the kid $50M. He's just not worth it, PR or no. $20M may be over the mark.

I don't know what the MLB rules are about "pre-negotiating", but if it seems that Boras is going to try and treat Strasburg as though he was a fully mature Walty Johnson, pass. Ackley solves your CF problem or can be your 1B and allow a trade of Nick J. for a pitcher. Use the 9 to draft a pitcher who will be ready in '11.

Posted by: Catcher50 | May 30, 2009 4:55 PM | Report abuse

Shouldn't this one have been titled "An Open Letter to Scott Boras"?

Posted by: nunof1 | May 30, 2009 5:04 PM | Report abuse

So he's worth it?

I'm glad you compared him to Wood or Prior, who both essentially broke down. The odds are in favor of it happening to Strasberg, too.

Posted by: paulkp | May 30, 2009 7:10 PM | Report abuse

Typical Boswell talking that NEGATIVE sxxx again.........You are an OVER rated FRAUD and you are a part of the PROBLEM because alot of these Koolade LOSERS take every word as Gospel.......YOU PAY SS OR sell the Fxxxxxx team ..........This sorry azz team will surpass the METS 120 losses this year and become the most INEPT team in modern baseball history....... There are NO MORE get out of Draft Clusterfxxx JAIL cards left for this organization to play !!!!!

Posted by: FletcherChristian1 | May 30, 2009 8:58 PM | Report abuse

Real Baseball Intelligence (RBI), a leading resource in the evaluation of amateur baseball talent and draft coverage, offers its 2009 Baseball Draft Guide. The Guide includes RBI's Top 400 draft prospects (including Stephen Strasburg), scouting reports of the top ten players at each position, a mock draft and more. It is available at withthefirstpick.net/guide

Posted by: bhyman1 | May 30, 2009 9:12 PM | Report abuse

The two dumbest rules in baseball: (1) the intentional walk (2) can't trade your draft picks.

Strasburg is far more valuable to the Nats as trade bait than as an SOS (Save Our Season) pitching prospect.

This will end ugly in 2012.

Posted by: howjensen | May 31, 2009 5:38 AM | Report abuse

Catcher 50 seems to have said it right...Draft Ackley(CF-IB); and draft a Pitcher in 10th spot...Trade NJohnson for a Pitcher is ideal to complete the scenario...Only thing is how the franchise will be viewed as "worse" if Strasburg does turn out to be another Walter Johnson? This is the BIG RISK that will be taken for sure...But to be more realistic/practical, I'd favor the 1st scenario of "Catcher 50".Hope the Nats make the right decision on this one to turn around our past failures anddisastrous showing so far on sked to beat the Mets'122-loss season in '69.

Posted by: fbacolod29 | May 31, 2009 8:19 AM | Report abuse

"Typical Boswell talking that NEGATIVE sxxx again.........YOU PAY SS OR sell the Fxxxxxx team .........."

Posted by: FletcherChristian1

Wow - Scott Boras is posting here! Perfect screen name, too!

Posted by: MikeH0714 | May 31, 2009 8:52 AM | Report abuse

The Nationals after losing 102 games last year have to cash in on that pain, and that means bringing on board the best prospect at the most difficult position, a player whose ability gives the organization some direction toward having the young, core rotation in place.

Why trade this pick even if it were possible?

To get a guy that hits 25 homers and perhaps a relief pitcher that gets batters out in the eigth inning?

So, you would trade Strasburg for Willingham and a 2006 version of Luis Ayala?

Posted by: leopard09 | May 31, 2009 9:33 AM | Report abuse

what a great line: the best one since the last best one.....

we could use him, a second baseman, a center fielder who can run and hit, and, and, and, and, and....

at least the young arms are coming around...

Posted by: outrbnksm | May 31, 2009 11:41 AM | Report abuse

You win with pitching above all else. It is much, much easier to find position players that have major impact than it is to find pitchers. Yes the price tag is probably high, and I think it will come down a bit from his two losses to better opposition than he might usually face playing in San Diego State's conference. They have to take the risk though, and it is a major one but they will not be ridiculed for drafting Strasburg and seeing him fizzle out. He might need more time in the minors that is fine. Maybe he comes up late next season; it's not as if the Nationals are going anywhere quickly.

Posted by: Killerangel81 | May 31, 2009 2:50 PM | Report abuse

Boz,

Love your writing, and I try to read as much as I can from you regarding the Nats.

So naturally, I read your assessment a couple months ago where you offered a survey of #1 draft picks who were pitchers (and those pitchers who were not drafted in the 1st round) and how those picks fared in their careers. Your logic argued against wasting the first pick on a pitcher. As 'messiah-ish' as Strasburg appears to be, you made a pretty sound argument against picking him - if I remember correctly, your basic argument was 'you never know.'

While I see elements of that argument in this posting, it seems that you have changed your mind regarding how the Nats should proceed. I'd be interested to know why you have had a change of heart. Is it because Strasburg's performance this past season? Or maybe is it because this pick by the Nats is inevitable?

Posted by: CajunD | May 31, 2009 3:01 PM | Report abuse

The comments to this entry are closed.

 
 
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