June 14, 2010
Before I get into today's column, I need to correct an error I made in
the last one. I listed Boston Red Sox draftee Bryce Brentz as a
third baseman, or implied that would be his future position with the
organization. I honestly don't know where that came from because
he's definitely an outfielder. So his promotion to the big
leagues, performance notwithstanding, will probably be contingent on
when JD Drew's contract or Mike Cameron's contract will expire.
Of course, he has to play well enough in the minors after signing to
merit the move. But anyway...
I wanted to talk a little bit about the future of the Nationals.
Obviously, Stephen Strasburg's debut parted the clouds considerably,
but I'll get to more on that in a minute. First, let's talk
Last year, I was pretty down on the choices the front office made in
the amateur draft. Strasburg was one of the biggest no-brainers
in the history of the draft so you don't exactly have to know what
you're doing to understand you have to pick him. Bryce Harper was
a similar pick, and they'll be more on that in a minute. But the
rest of the nationals draft last year was pretty underwhelming.
Yes, they picked and signed Drew Storen and he's progressed quickly
enough that he's producing in the majors and acquitting himself
well. And there's significant value in that because not all first
rounders make it to the bigs. But after the first round, I felt
their picks were pretty much mailed in. I mean, look at this:
Their second rounder, Jeff Kobernus, was hitting .242/.265/.274 in low
A and is almost 22 years
old, making him almost two years older than real prospect age for that
level. His BB/K
against younger players is 4/27 and he has yet to hit a homer.
Also taken in that round were Everett Williams, a very toolsy
outfielder (something the Nationals desperately need), Rich Poythress (a solid college
bat who's doing reasonably well translating to wood, and Jason Kipnis,
an outfielder who's hitting like one might expect a second rounder
should (.300/.389/.471 across two levels, currently in AA).
Trevor Holder, a U of Georgia Alum whom the Nationals had been
following is pitching well in low A, but he's 23 years old. A
23-year old should be able to throw 65.2 innings of 3.15 ERA ball with
50 Ks (against only 7 walks) and a WHIP of 1.14.
AJ Morris, another 23 year old pitcher is not faring as well in high A
with a 3.91 ERA, 39 Ks in 46 innings
but also 21 walks and 4
homers allowed + 44 hits.
These were all college guys and none of them really had any substantial
upside. It's not like the Nats were overburdened with
payroll. Why not take some chances on some high school kids with
upside. one has to ask the question - which helps the team more: a $1.5
million contract given to reliever Brian Bruney (since released) or
taking a chance on a high upside arm out of high school like Miguel
Pena for half of that? For me, the answer is easy, especially
with how fungible most relief roles are.
And then this year began the same way as last year with the obvious
pick and then two consecutive low-upside college picks, Sammy Solis and
Rick Hague. Solis profiles as a #3 starter from the left side,
which may be a nice compliment to Strasburg and Zimmerman if he reaches
his potential. But that's a big if and the Nats already have a
plethora of serviceable arms not unlike his. And then taking Rick
Hague, who looked great in the second half of Rice's season but looked
dreadful during the first half, committing 22 errors, and his future is
widely viewed as a utility man. And that's his upside. The
scouts like that he's a gamer and every team needs a Jamey Carroll or
an Augie Ojeda or a Craig Counsell. But seriously, do you really
want to focus on developing utility guys? Why not aim higher and
settle for a utility guy if he fails to reach his potential.
These guys were taken over high ceiling arms like Stetson Allie or a
solid two-way player like Brett Eibner.
So I wasn't too happy with the draft until the fourth round and the
Nats lucked into AJ Cole, who was widely viewed as first round material
(perhaps the third best high school arm available behind Jameson
Taillon and Allie) but his stock had dropped due to signability
concerns and a little inconsistency. Now this is the kind of pick
the Nationals should be taking by the bushel. Hopefully they'll
do the right thing and offer him a contract over the slot amount so
he'll seriously consider signing and get him into the system
So at least there's some hope for the system beyond their top two or
OK, now onto Stephen Strasburg. I think enough has been written
about his debut so I won't say much about it other than to note that
perhaps the most impressive aspect about his performance is that he
shined so brightly under such enormous expectations. Hopefully
he'll perform like that when the Nationals are in the playoffs.
As for his second start, I was mystified why Rodriguez was calling so
may sinkers, changes and breaking pitches to a team that can't hit a
good fastball. Had Strasburg thrown 90% fastballs, he would have
no hit them for seven innings. None of their hits came on his
good heat. The humidity, high heat and condition of the mound
didn't do him any favors and I suspect grounds crews around the league
took notice (about the mound, not the weather). And yes, they do
play that game, making it tougher on the opposition like soaking the
dirt when a team with a good running game comes to town or leaving the
grass a little higher on the infield when they have a groundball
pitcher on the mound. Still, I expect Strasburg won't make it
much of an issue here forward. He's a very focused guy.
OK, so how good will
Strasburg be? Well, his last start elevated his walk rate
considerably but I doubt we'll see that kind of performance too
often. He's always had amazing control so the walk rate should
finish around 2.0 per nine innings. His strikeout rate will
probably drop a little although it might not drop by much. In the
history of the game, the only pitchers who posted a season in which
they struck out better than
8 batters per nine innings, walked less than 2.5 batters
per 9 at age 22 or younger
and had at least 10 starts are: Dwight Gooden,
Frank Tanana, Mark Prior,
Gary Nolan, Don Sutton, Francisco Liriano, Roger
Clemens and Felix
Hernandez. Only Clemens did it at age 21 and walked fewer
than 2 batters per 9. And none of them struck out
better than 9 batters per nine innings so young. As much as many
of the stat heads would like to say that Ubaldo Jimenez offers a
similar juggernaut on the mound, that just isn't the truth. The
truth is that there has never been a pitcher who threw 100 mph with two
other plus plus pitches (slurve and sinker), command of all of them
with such a cool demeanor at age 21. Never. So while
Jimenez is comparable now, in 5 years when Strasburg is Jimenez' age
now, the gulf between the two will be enormous. Imagine Greg
Maddux throwing 100 mph. That is Strasburg's upside.
Provided he stays healthy for his career, I think we're seeing probably
the best pitcher ever.
So what does this mean for
the Nationals in say... 2 years when Harper could possibly be making
his debut (assuming he signs). Why be so ambitious, though.
Let's say in 4 years... how good will the Nationals be?
The Mariners had Junior Griffey, ARod and Randy Johnson on their big
league club starting in 1996. Johnson was
injured part of that year
but the team still won 85 games. The next year all were healthy and the team won 90 games. In
'98, Johnson was traded to the Astros at the trading deadline
yet the team still won 76
games. The Nats should be in a similar situation to the '96 Ms in two
with Zimmerman, Strasburg
and Harper. Ryan Zimmerman is the face of the franchise and money
won't be an issue in Washington the way it was in Seattle, not with the
sellout crowds the Nats will get each time Strasburg pitches and when
the team starts winning. His future will be like that of Cal
Ripken and Tony Gwynn - a National for his entire career. Another
difference is that the Mariners
didn't have a Jordan
Zimmerman-quality starter to back up the Big Unit in the rotation, plus
the Unit was
already in his 30s.
All of the core Nats will still be on the good side of 30. In fact only Ryan Zimmerman will be
entering his peak years. Seattle fans can
only dream about what could
have been; National fans will live it. Along with the Braves and
Marlins, both of whom have plenty of high upside young talent, the
Nationals will make the National League East a similarly powerhouse
division like the AL East is now and quite exciting to watch.