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Strasburg Debate Revisited

Stephen StrasburgMy 2009 College Players to Watch list, if it is to be remembered, will be remembered for one thing: I ranked Stephen Strasburg behind Dustin Ackley. Here is a portion of what I wrote about Strasburg when I posted the 2009 list:
...To say that Strasburg is the consensus top pick is an understatement. Many are calling him the best pitching prospect in decades, or even a prospect of the kind that we have never seen before. I will spare that debate for later...
Now, it's time for the debate. It's easier to have it now that both players are signed.

Stephen Strasburg is a special talent, but he is set up to fail. He really is. Scouts have gushed over him, calling him anything from the best prospect in the last 25 years, to the best pitching prospect ever, to the best prospect ever.

Really?

I don't want to come across as someone down on Strasburg, but somebody needs to bring some rational thought to this debate. Let's consider some other pitchers in recent memory:
  • Josh Beckett: Is Strasburg a better prospect than Beckett was? Strasburg wasn't drafted out of high school, yet Beckett went second overall in 1999 as a prep flame-thrower with a promising power curve. I think it's safe to say that Beckett panned out - he shut down the Yankees in one of the more memorable pitching performances of the past decade, with his complete game in old Yankee Stadium to clinch the 2003 World Series for the Marlins. He was 23 years old when he did that. Since then, Beckett was the centerpiece of the deal that netted Hanley Ramirez for Florida, and has won another championship anchoring the Red Sox staff. Clearly, Beckett was well ahead of Strasburg as an 18-year-old, and Strasburg will have to be an emerging ace by 2011 to even be in the debate with Beckett.
I could pick any high school pitcher and claim they were a better prospect though. Stephen really exploded in college, so it is more fair to compare him to college prospects. Consider some of these from recent memory...
  • Roger Clemens: Maybe Clemens is pushing the boundaries of "recent memory." However, he was drafted out of high school in 1981, but didn't sign. He signed when the Red Sox picked him in the first round in 1983. Clemens was in Boston's rotation in 1984, and won his first Cy Young in 1986 as a 23-year-old. Rumored steroid use has tainted his career, but I think he was clean until he became a Blue Jay in the late '90s. Clemens was the 19th pick in his draft, so arguably Strasburg is more highly touted. However, Boston clearly loved Roger. He was in the rotation immediately, and produced immediately.
  • Tim Lincecum: I think Tiny Tim is a fantastic comparison. Lincecum put up similar numbers to Strasburg in college, but did it in a tougher conference. He caught eyes with his blazing fastball, much like Strasburg. The biggest difference is that Lincecum is shorter than Strasburg, and has a funkier delivery. That's what kept him from going higher in the draft, but he still went 11th overall. Lincecum ended up spending only a few months in the minors, and in his first full season won the NL Cy Young award. He is a front-runner to win the Cy Young again this year. In other words, Strasburg arguably will have to win a Cy Young before his rookie deal is over to compare with Lincecum.
Perhaps I should limit myself to only top overall picks, since I'm yet to pick one of those to compare to Strasburg. I'd agree that Strasburg is better than many other college pitchers picked first overall - the last five before Strasburg are David Price (2007), Bryan Bullington (2002), Matt Anderson (1997), Kris Benson (1996), and Paul Wilson (1994). They have a combined zero all-star appearances between them, though Price is still active and promises to be a good pitcher in the near future. If anything, past history suggests that the best player in a draft class is rarely picked number one overall.

I understand that there is a difference between potential and development. Some players with great potential never realize it, while others develop seemingly out of nowhere. Because of that, I can pick virtually anyone to make any argument I want.

Still, Josh Beckett was clearly a much more highly touted prospect in high school than Strasburg was. Doesn't that make him arguably a better prospect, especially considering what Beckett has become? He had high expectations as the second overall pick, and delivered.

Roger Clemens stepped into Boston's rotation immediately, much like Strasburg is expected to do with the Nats. Clemens was expected to do that as the 19th pick overall in his draft, so should we expect even more out of Strasburg? Expecting comparable production out of a guy as highly touted as Strasburg seems fair.

Tim Lincecum had comparable production to Strasburg in college, and was also a first round pick. It's hard to say he came out of nowhere. Should we expect at least two Cy Youngs out of Strasburg before he hits arbitration? After all, Stephen doesn't have some of the question marks that scouts had about Lincecum.

These are the expectations that have been put on Stephen Strasburg. Beckett, Clemens, and Lincecum are all exceptions, but Strasburg is expected to be an exception as well. On top of that, Stephen enters a situation where he is expected to be the savior, and everyone involved in scouting, drafting, and negotiating with him may be gone in a few months.

A big reason Strasburg went to San Diego State was to stay close to home, because he needed some support as he grew up some. By no means does Stephen have character issues, and he's certainly better prepared to handle a cross-country move now than he was three years ago. However, between moving far away from home, becoming a savior, becoming a millionaire overnight, and facing competition that will push him harder than ever before, Strasburg could use some support. Anyone could. A franchise in upheaval like the Nats right now aren't well equipped to give him that.

All things considered, Stephen Strasburg is set up to fail. In reality, he is among the best pitching prospects in recent memory, not far and away the best. From a production standpoint, he only caught Dustin Ackley this past season. It can't be overlooked that Ackley put up his numbers in the ACC, which is always one of the strongest baseball conferences in the nation. Ackley's higher level of production over a longer course of time, combined with the more realistic expectations surrounding him, and the history of position players panning out on a more consistent basis, make him a player I am more comfortable handing big money. Hence, I favored Ackley when I ranked college players, because I couldn't decide which one was actually a better prospect.

Strasburg's saving grace is his talent. He is good enough to beat the odds, and I hope he does. Just don't be shocked if he doesn't live up to the hype. Who could live up to what he is expected to do?