Stephen Strasburg will dominate, but for how long?

In a land of baseball fans enamored by Stephen “the best pitching prospect of all time” Strasburg, I would throw my name in the hat along with Curt Schilling to lead his fan club.  Schilling recently commented to ESPN, “I’ve never seen anything like this. Never. Nothing close. Not at that age, that polished. If he comes up to the big leagues … he’ll immediately potentially be the best pitcher in the game.”

Personally, I got on the Strasburg bandwagon prior to the start of the 2009 baseball season.  I lobbied Yahoo Sports to add Strasburg to the list of available players even though he hadn’t yet been drafted.  I maintained my #1 waiver priority in my fantasy league the entire season just in case he became available.  I alleviated the pain of not drafting him in this year’s league by trading Roy Oswalt for him last week.  Steve Phillips must have caught wind of my trade because the next day he indicated that he would make that trade if he was the GM of the Washington Nationals.  I wish my fantasy league had more GM’s like Steve Phillips…

There appears to be little doubt that Strasburg will make his major league debut on June 8th against the Pittsburgh Pirates and begin his dominance.  He was dominate throughout college, during the 2008 Summer Olympics, during spring training this year and in AA and AAA ball this spring.  As Schilling correctly noted, we are seeing something special.   A 100 mph fastball and 80mpg curveball will do that for a guy.

Stephen Strasburg will be a dominating starting pitcher in the major leagues, but for how long? 

The good news for Strasburg fans is that the list of great North American pitchers over the past 25 years indicates that greatness is not something that is developed over time.  The great players were great players before they made the show.  All of the following pitchers were drafted in the first or second round: Greg Maddux, Roger Clemens, Tom Glavine, Randy Johnson, Mike Mussina, Roy Halladay, Tim Lincecum, Zack Greinke, CC Sabathia, Chris Carpenter and Dan Haren*. 

* I am including Haren on this list in hopes that he reads this post and it boosts his confidence.  While he isn’t killing my fantasy team this year, he certainly isn’t helping.

The bad news for Strasburg fanatics is baseball history contains a list of 100’s, if not 1000’s, of blue chip pitching prospects that were drafted high in the first round that never amounted to much.  My list of eleven superstars pales in comparison to the list of players who have spent time bartending before their 25th birthday.  In the past fifteen years alone, names like Brien Taylor, Paul Wilson, Matt Anderson, Kris Benson, Brian Bullington and Luke Hochevar have graced the number one overall draft slot.  With apologies to Benson and Wilson, being the number one overall pick as a pitcher is akin to being a bust.  To be fair, none of this pitchers had 10% of the hype that Strasburg has.

 There have been two pitching prospects hyped as much as Strasburg over the past twenty years: Ben McDonald and Mark Prior.  Like Strasburg, both pitchers were drafted out of college after winning the Golden Spikes Award for best college baseball player (baseball’s Heisman trophy).*  Like Strasburg, both pitchers came equipped with a blazing fastball and knee buckling curve.  McDonald and Prior were expected to join the major leagues and dominate.   Neither pitcher disappointed, at least initially.

 * Tim Lincecum and David Price are also recent winners of the award.

 After being selected 1st overall in 1989, McDonald joined the Orioles bullpen for a quick cup of coffee in the bigs that fall.  In July 1990, he joined the rotation as a 20 year old and proceeded to throw a complete game shutout in his first major league start.  While his 8-5 record was not anything to write home about, his 3 complete games, 2 shutouts, 88 hits allowed in 118 innings, 2.43 ERA and 1.04 WHIP were all the numbers of a future star.

1991 was a step back for McDonald before three very good seasons for a horrible Baltimore team before injuries limited Ben to fourteen starts in 1995.  He played his final two years for Milwaukee and finished his nine year career with a record of 78-70 and a 3.91ERA. 

Thanks to the internet and explosion of fantasy baseball, Mark Prior came onto the scene with considerably more hype that Ben McDonald.  Drafted 2nd overall by the Cubs in 2001*, Prior joined the Cubs in the summer of 2002.  While his record of 6-6 and ERA of 3.32 were not overly impressive, his 147k’s over 116 innings were exactly what Cubs fans had hoped for.

* The Twins selected Joe Mauer 1st overall due in part to the huge signing bonus demands of Prior.  Sometimes it pays to be poor.

In Prior’s first season, he was as good as we all hope Strasburg will be.  He finished the year 18-6, with a 2.43 ERA, 1.10 WHIP, and 245 strikeouts over 211 innings with only 50 walks allowed.    He finished 3rd in Cy Young voting and helped the Cubs into the post-season.

Sadly, injuries quickly ruined Prior’s career.  He made only 57 starts over the next three seasons with an 18-19 record.  He remained a strikeout pitcher, but his control was never the same as he struggled with altering his mechanics in an effort to prevent future injury.  Prior has remained a fixture on spring training rosters to this day, but he last pitched in the majors in 2006.

Injuries both contributed to the demise of both McDonald and Prior and illustrate how harsh the game of baseball can be to strikeout pitchers.  For every Nolan Ryan, Steve Carlton, Roger Clemens and Randy Johnson, there are 50 pitchers whose arms could not handle the strain of throwing 100mph every fifth day.

For Stephan Strasburg, I do not think any of us truly has any idea of how his career will pan out.  He will be with the Washington Nationals in a couple of weeks and he very likely will dominate.  His record might not jump off the page, but hey, he is pitching for the Nationals after all.  He will likely then have a great 2011 season.  From there, fans will be left to hold their collective breath and hope that Strasburg’s body can handle the stress that comes from pitching through a complete major league season.  That question will remain unanswered until at least the 2012 or 2013 season.  Personally, I am really hoping he makes it for the long term.  I am in a fantasy keeper league after all…

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