Tuesday, March 9, 2010

One great debut; now what?

Photo by Mark Zuckerman / NATS INSIDER
Stephen Strasburg couldn't have done much more in his spring training debut.
VIERA, Fla. -- It lasted all of 20 minutes, included only 27 pitches (21 fastballs, four breaking balls, two change-ups) and was witnessed by 4,305 fans, several dozen scouts, two rosters full of players and an overflowing press box at Space Coast Stadium.

And when the first two innings of Stephen Strasburg's professional career were complete, when the shock and awe of watching a 21-year-old make All-Star big-league hitters look silly with a repertoire of four "plus" pitches, there was really only one question left to ask.

Is this guy ready to pitch in the major leagues right now?

Since the day they drafted him first in the country and then handed him a record $15.1 million contract, the Nationals have made it clear they don't want to rush Strasburg. They respect the development process that has been in place for 100 years, and he needs to experience it just like everyone else. He'll be in the big leagues this year, probably before the All-Star break. But his chance of cracking the Opening Day rotation is tissue-paper thin.

And then after two years of hype, Strasburg actually faced major-league hitters for the first time and dominated them like they were juniors at Colorado State, not the Nos. 3 and 4 hitters for the Detroit Tigers.

So the question had to be asked again this afternoon: Is Strasburg competing for a spot in the Opening Day rotation? Jim Riggleman's answer was slightly tweaked from previous ones.

"We'll make a decision about whether he's on the ballclub or not," the manager said. "But I think in his mind, he's doing the right thing. He's just competing to get hitters out, and if that puts him on the ballclub, that would be his wish I'm sure. I guess indirectly, he is competing for a spot on the club in his mind. We'll make that call as an organization. But as far as he knows, he's like everybody else trying to make the club."

No talk of "respecting the process." No "unlikely" qualifiers. No firm answer one way or the other.

I may have read too much into it, but it sure sounded to me like the door opened ever so slightly today in the Nationals' minds.

After watching Strasburg, it's not hard to believe anything's possible. No less an authority than Tigers manager Jim Leyland said of the kid: "A guy like that's probably not long for the minors."

Where to begin? How about with the fastball, that once-in-a-generation heater that blew away opponents at San Diego State and blew away opponents at Space Coast Stadium. It registered anywhere between 94 mph and 98 mph today, which is actually on the lower end of the spectrum for a guy who has routinely cracked triple digits in the past.

The reason for the diminished velocity? "Most of the pitches he threw were sinkers," catcher Wil Nieves said. Ninety-seven mph sinkers? Yeah. Strasburg threw only one or two four-seam fastballs, most notably a 98 mph laser to strike out Miguel Cabrera.

And, believe it or not, his fastball isn't even his best pitch. That would be his breaking ball, a hybird slider/curve that comes in around 81 mph and darts down and away from right-handed hitters. Brent Dlugach, Strasburg's other strikeout victim, saw that one firsthand when he froze on a 3-2 breaking ball to end the second inning.

What about the change-up? Well, it comes in at 91 mph and it drops like a splitter. Do you know how many members of the Nationals' pitching staff can't even throw a fastball 91 mph? (The projected Opening Day starter, for one.) A skeptic might say it's actually too hard for a change-up, that there should be a greater difference from the fastball to really be effective. But as Strasburg points out, his change-up can be plenty effective at that ridiculous speed.

"The thing that's going to sell it is your arm speed," he said. "That's what I'm trying to go out there and do, just locate it down in the zone. Throw it on the seams like a change-up, and it's going to have some downward tilt to it. It could be 5-6 mph lower and still be super-effective."

So clearly, Strasburg has the arsenal to pitch in the major leagues. Plenty of big-league hurlers have only or two legitimate pitches. He's got four.

"And the amazing thing is, it's not just the stuff," pitching coach Steve McCatty said. "It's the ability to locate it."

Strasburg also has another key trait critical to his success: He knows how to pitch. It's one thing to be able to throw a baseball wherever you want. It's quite another to know when to throw which pitch and how to go after big-league batters. Strasburg understands that already, and what he doesn't know, he asks.

"He's a guy who wants to learn," Nieves said. "And if you tell him something, he'll listen to you. That's what you want. When you have a guy like that with that talent and willing to learn and to be humble, he's going to be good. He's going to have a lot of success wherever he is."

So, we ask the question again: Is Strasburg ready to pitch in the majors in April?

More and more, the answer appears to be yes.

Here's the thing, though: Even if he's ready, there are several good reasons for the Nationals not to bring him north at the end of camp.

1. He still needs to learn how to pitch on a five-day regimen. Strasburg got a taste of that in Arizona last fall, but he needs to experience it a bit more. In college, he pitched once a week. Now, he needs to throw bullpen sessions two days after pitching, then prepare for his next start on a new schedule.

2. He still needs to learn the little things about being a professional ballplayer. Long road trips. Day games after night games. All the stuff you never think of until you're actually experiencing it. Just ask Ryan Zimmerman, who spent only three months in the minors before making his big-league debut in September 2005.

"Obviously, pitching might be a little different," Zimmerman said. "But he's going to have to learn what his throwing program is in between his five days and learn how to look at video and all that. For me, it was just learning the routine every day. 'Cause in college, you play five games a week and have three days off. Once you get here, you struggle or get into a funk for two or three days, there's no escaping it. You have to figure out within the game or before the game what it is you're doing wrong and make the adjustment."

3. By keeping him in the minors for a couple of the months, the Nationals can delay his arbitration and free agent clocks and keep him under club control through 2016. This isn't a cheap-ownership ploy. It's smart baseball economics. Why risk letting a guy become a free agent one year earlier than you have to?

4. He's not going to help the Nationals win in 2010 anyway. This may be the toughest pill to swallow, but it's an important point. This year's club is not going to contend for anything. It's just not. The Nats are 0-7 this spring, having allowed 70 runs and 105 hits, equating to a ghastly 10.68 ERA. No, these games don't count and you shouldn't read too much into them. But there is some truth behind it all. This club is not ready to win yet. Why rush Strasburg just to help you try to get from 67 wins to 72? It's not worth it.

The Nationals don't have to make this decision tonight. They've got a couple weeks. See Strasburg pitch again a few times and get a better sense of where he really is in his development.

For now, just enjoy what we saw today and appreciate it for what it was. The man at the center of it all certainly did.

"It was a blast," Strasburg said. "It really was."


MikeHarris said...

Watching the replay now - he struck the guy out again with that great breaking ball.
I think I'm in love.

Andrew said...

Watching it on MASN. Very nice debut!

TBC said...

It's not Riggleman's call, it's Rizzo's. So pay no attention to nuances of what Riggleman might say. Rizzo is not going to bring Strasburg up until after the date when he's not a super two. No way, no how. No ifs ands or buts. Rizzo wants to still be GM of this team when Strasburg hits free agency. Riggleman may be long gone by then. Riggleman may need to win now, but Rizzo doesn't.

Andrew said...

I enjoyed watching Nyjer at the 47 minute mark of the game sliding feet first into 2nd on the steal!!!!!!!

Andrew said...

TBC - Really good points!

Dave Nichols said...

the other thing about starting in the minors: it will be easier to limit his innings pitched. he's going to be on a innings limit this season regardless of where he starts, and you can flat out tell the manager in Harrisburg that he throws five innings tonight and not a pitch more. tougher to do that in the majors where you're looking to get 7+ out of him every start.

Andrew said...

Dave, watch the PNats Stadium empty out after the 5th inning when Strasburg pitches!

Its a good strategy to save those innings for the Major Leagues.

What will his 2010 inning count be? 160 inning range I would guess. 10 to 12 starts in the Minors?

So 55 Minor League innings leaves you 14 to 16 Major League starts before the 160 innings are reached if you figure 6 to 7 innings per MLB start.

What do you think?

Avar said...

#3 is the only reason they should not start him in the bigs. Maybe I just understand it but I'm not at all persuaded by #1 and #2. What's to learn? You go where they tell and do what they tell you. It's not like to throw a bullpen, he has to go rent a field and hire a catcher. Although he did that over the winter. Two days after he starts, the coach says, you're throwing a bullpen today. So, he gets up and throws a bullpen. What's to learn? I don't get it.

#3 is totally legit but if he does this same type of performance for the rest of spring, it is going to be really hard to keep him in the minors. And will get even tougher if they don't win in April. Guys become Super 2s because they dominate the minors and force the team to call them up. No team wants to do that but if he dominates, it gets harder to pull off.

Wally said...

Maybe I misunderstand the rules, but I don't think that Super 2 status matters in this situation. Super two status gives the player a right to arbitration in his third year (rather than the normal fourth year), instead of the team unilaterally renewing his contract. In Strasburg's case, his salary is set for the next 5 years through the major league contract that he signed in August, so having the right to go to arbitration a year early has no practical effect.

On the other hand, starting him in the minors for a while gives the team an extra year of control before he hits free agency (7 years instead of 6), which is a very important right that the team should take advantage of, since arbitration in almost all cases results in lower pay than free agency (even before taking into account length of contract), and their prospects in 2016 have got to be better than 2010. I don't know how long that has to be for the deferral to take place, but it isn't as long as it would be to avoid Super Two status.

But I do think that there is real value for giving SS the time to build up arm strength every 5 days outside the pressure of the major leagues, especially if he is the guy that they look to for stopping losing streaks. That is how overuse happens, I think.

Anonymous said...

Not trying to be Debbie Downer, but:
for those baseball fans who know that Strasburg's super-skills allows him to take a priviledged short-cut road to the big show...please watch the movie "Sugar" (now in regular rotation on HBO). It shows what happens to the so many many more of the regular MLB draftee/signees trying to break in (esp. Caribbeans)

peric said...

Looking at the guy **I kept asking about** left-handed Aaron Thompson. Looks like he needs to be placed back in the upper tier on the prospect radar.

Let's give Rizzo some Kudos now ... imagine this rotation: Strasburg, Chapman, Thompson, Zimmermann (before injury after recovery?), Lannan , and [Mock, Martin, Stammen]NEXT YEAR. Probably gives Rizzo a fit thinking about losing Chapman to Bowden's favorite team.

With a decent relief staff, which they are getting closer to, that looks like a rotation that could potentially carry a team pretty far into the playoffs?

It was THAT close ... I swear Bowden must have had something to do with ...

Anonymous said...

Great game. I don't know where this "once-in-a-generation" stuff is coming from. I didn't see anything from him that I didn't see from Mark Prior just a few years ago. But certainly it'd be foolish to send him to the minors, he is clearly one of the best five pitchers on the team.

peric said...

On SI they are comparing Chapman to Herb Score ... which is basically a Sandy Koufax.

Be interesting to read an objective scouts' analysis comparing and contrasting Strasburg with left-handed Chapman.

johninmpls said...

I've said before that I'll be perfectly happy if he doesn't play a single game for Washington in 2010.

Reading this summary definitely challenged that. It's hard to know there's someone like that within the organization and not getting to see him in the bigs. And really, I don't have the opportunity to catch any of the minor league games.

Sunshine_Bobby_Carpenter_Is_Too_Pessimistic_for_Me said...

He can't start the year in the bigs. Takes away innings from Matt Chico.

Unknown said...

If Willingham keeps giving up runs in left field as he stumbles for balls hit to his left, then Nats pitchers better be good, very good, and hope their fly balls go to center and right.

court said...

I've changed my mind on this arbitration-clock thing. If he is what we think he is, the club will most likely extend him and buyout some, if not all of his arbitration years. It's happening all over baseball from Lincecum to Howard to Longoria to Zimmerman. I believe Strasburg's current contract takes him thru '12 - at that point, if he's all that, a bag of chips and an orange soda, then he'll get extended. I dare say Mr. Strasburg will never see the inside of an arbitration hearing.

Having said that, I think getting into the 5-day routine will be what keeps him in the minors. But I think he'll only be down for a month or so - maybe 5 starts, then we'll see him closer to Memorial Day than Independence Day.

Anonymous8 said...

John said...
If Willingham keeps giving up runs in left field as he stumbles for balls hit to his left, then Nats pitchers better be good, very good, and hope their fly balls go to center and right.

Every ball in the air towards Josh seems to be an adventure as he goes after a ball. If his offense is good enough, the questionable defense and range is a tradeoff.

Anonymous said...

Peric, slow down on Thompson. for one thing JD Martin might be getting jealous. He tops out at 88-90 so listing him ahead of Zimmermann (and Lannan for that matter) in your rotation is a bit much.

TBC said...

I dare say Mr. Strasburg will never see the inside of an arbitration hearing.

That's not the issue. Whether it's bought out or not, an arbitration year is an arbitration year. And when the last arbitration year is done, the player becomes a free agent. By delaying Strasburg's big league debut until sometime in June, the Nats can push his first free agency out another year. That's exactly what they should be doing, keeping him under team control as long as possible. All going to arbitration or buying him out of arbitration years does is affect the method by which his salary gets determined during those years and how much he gets paid. The important thing is that he's not allowed to negotiate with any other teams for as long as possible.

nattaboy said...

I just wanted to say I appreciated your following up with olsen yesterday to ask if his arm felt good the day after starting. I was really interested in that and nobody else had it.

Call him up the second he misses being super 2. I think it's what should and will happen.

Go Nats!

JCA said...

Mark - all they need to do is delay his call up to 4/18, the first time they need a 5th starter, to gain an extra year before free agency. this is exactly what they did with Jordan Zimmermann last year, when his first start was scheduled for 4/19. Regular season ends on 10/3. A year is 172 days for major league service according to Cots's summary of the MLB Contract (I'm could not find it quickly in the contract). Doing the math, 3 for October, another 153 for May through September, add in another 13 days for April 18 (date of activation) through 4/30 makes 169 days, which keeps him from getting a full year's service time in 2010. He will not have 6 years at the end of 2015, so we get to keep him for 2016.

There is no need to have him on the roster before 4/18. They need a 5thstarter once up in Citifield, but a long man like Stammen or JD Martin can have that start.

Anonymous said...

No doubt the kid's got electric stuff. But several times I noticed him tip his pitches with his glove movements and I don't care WHO in the bigs you're facing, they can and will make life miserable, even for a kid with a thunderbolt for an arm. He still has a lot of work to do.

TBC said...

JCA, I think the Super 2 thing is more complicated than you have laid it out. From mlb.com:

A: A player with three or more years of service, but less than six years, may file for salary arbitration. In addition, a player can be classified as a "Super Two" and be eligible for arbitration with less than three years of service. A player with at least two but less than three years of Major League service shall be eligible for salary arbitration if he has accumulated at least 86 days of service during the immediately preceding season and he ranks in the top 17 percent in total service in the class of Players who have at least two but less than three years of Major League service, however accumulated, but with at least 86 days of service accumulated during the immediately preceding season.

Sounds to me that it's not strictly the player's service time that does or doesn't make him a Super 2, it's how his service time stacks up relative to the other players who have two but less than three years of service. If they bring him up in April, he could easily fall in the top 17% and become a Super 2. That's why I think it's much more likely that he won't be brought up until June or later, once it's absolutely clear that he won't be in the top 17%.

Unknown said...

I have a different understanding of how "Super Two" arbitration process works vs. how long the player is under team control than has been discussed on this post:

1) "Super Two" players do not automatically hit Free Agency earlier than a "normal" player. They simply get an extra year of arbitration- they will go through arbitration 4 times, not 3. This does not matter for Strasburg or the Nats, since his MLB contract bought out a potential "super two" year and the first year of arbitration.

2) A player hits FA when he has accumulated 6 years of service time. A "year" of service time is considered 172 days of service time. Though there are usually about 180-185 actual days in a regular season, a player cannot earn more than 172 "service time" days in a single season. (Service time is any day spent on the MLB roster or the 15 day DL or the 60 day DL. There are other caveats and restrictions too)

Whether Strasburg is a "super two" or not does not make him automatically eligible for free agency a year sooner. As long as the Nats can keep him under 172 days of "service time" this season, he will not get his first year service time completed until next season. If I'm understanding the rules correctly, the Nats could promote him after the April 15, and they would control him through the 2016 season because he would not aqcuire a full year of service time until 2011. If they promote him on or before April 15, they risk Strasburg accumulating a year worth of service time in 2010 at which point he would be a Free Agent after the 2015 season. If they bring him up in late April or early May, he would likely be eligable for "Super Two" arbitration status, but not gain free agency a year earlier.

(My math: April 16-30 = 15 days +31 in May +30 June + 31 July + 31 August + 30 Sept. + 3 October = 171 days). If I am incorrect about this, please let me know and point me to a link that will clarify whatever mistake I've made. It's definitely a complicated system! Thanks

Unknown said...

JCA and I agree (with a 3 day margin of error)!

Anonymous said...

I believe everyone needs some time in the minors.

Paul Menhart said Stephen is not used to deciding his own pitches that in college the pitching coach called them, he needs to get in a zone and KNOW what to call, not wait for the catcher to tell him what to throw every pitch.

As Zim said Stephen needs to get used to the professional routine.

Stephen also needs to get in major league condition from what I saw in Viera he was hands on his knees after a lot of drills where most others were not showing any signs of fatigue.

I say a June or July call-up is good for him.

What is his inning ceiling for 2010? howe many innings did he throw last year, college plus Fall League?

Anonymous said...

TBC, stop bringing up Super 2. It's not going to happen because Strasburg's contract is already bought out for that year. All the nats have to worry about is that extra year before Free Agency.

NatsGirl said...

FWIW, as someone who deals with a *lot* of young people on a daily basis, Strasburg needs some time in the minors to, if nothing else, grow up a bit. He's not in college any more; no more classes, no more dorms, no more someone looking over your shoulder telling you what to do every minute of the day. Baseball is his job now and he needs to get a handle on that, just like every other ballplayer before him.
As other have pointed out, putting him in the minors also gives the team a better opportunity to limit his pitch count and innings (I, for one, would REALLY hate to see him end up on the DL next year because he wore out that nice, expensive arm); the Nats are going to suck this year, so why waste him in DC when he could be honing his craft in Syracuse--it's warm enough there in the summer for those of you concerned about his arm in the cold weather;and it lets the team keep him under lock and key for a little longer.
When it comes down to it, these guys are commodities; they're bought and sold and traded like used cars or stock options. Rizzo and Kasten should be thinking about wear and tear on their new "baby" and worrying about the best way to protect him/it and keep him for as long as they can. Apologies if I sound like a hardass...just taking another look.

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