Merry Strasmas
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 draft. 

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 quickly. 

So at least there's some hope for the system beyond their top two or three prospects.

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 years 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.