The Nationals announced today that they are sending uber-prospect Stephen Strasburg to AA Harrisburg to start the 2010 season. This makes so much sense on so many levels.
From the strictly economic sense, if Strasburg spends the first two weeks of the 2010 season in the minors, the Nats get another season before Strasburg can become a free agent. If he spends two months in the minor leagues, he doesn’t become arbitration eligible for another year.
Given the contract Strasburg received when he signed, it’s hard to feel sorry for Strasburg if he has to wait an additional year for free agency or arbitration. Because of the way the first contract is structured, and MLB’s rules on player pay cuts, Strasburg can’t earn less than $3 million per in any year before he becomes arbitration eligible.
Second, the more makes sense from a developmental perspective. Despite all the hype, Strasburg is a pitcher who to date has thrown only 28 professional innings including the nine he’s pitched this Spring.
Here’s what he did in the Arizona Fall League against top minor league prospects last Fall: 4-1 record, 4.26 ERA, 19 IP, 15 hits, three HRs and seven walks allowed and 23 Ks. Impressive, but not overly so.
In three Spring Training starts, here’s his line: 1-0 record, 2.00 ERA, nine IP, eight hits, two taters and one walk allowed and twelve Ks. Very Impressive, but not enough to convince me that he’s a major league pitcher at this very moment.
The number that really jumps out at me is the five dingers in 28 innings pitched. That comes out to 36 HRs in 200 IP, and that’s against minor leaguers in the AFL and a fair share of minor leaguers in Spring Training. It isn’t going to be easier for Stephen facing major league hitters in every at-bat.
College baseball is good, but it’s not that good, at least compared to professional baseball. A top fifteen draft pick selected out of college is generally best served starting his professional career in an A+ League, depending, of course, on whether the player is a hitter or a pitcher and whether the A+ league is a hitters’ or a pitchers’ league. If these factors are not in the prospect’s favor, he’s probably better off starting in a low, full-season A league.
For an exceptional college prospect like Strasburg, AA ball is the sensible place to start his 2010 season. Right now, Strasburg has a load of talent and a load of confidence in his abilities, and the last thing the Nats want to do is dent his confidence by rushing him in against major league hitters too soon. Better to let him beat up on AA and AAA hitters a little bit first.
All that being said, I’ll be surprised if Strasburg makes more than ten starts at the AA level, and I’ll be somewhat surprised if he isn’t pitching in the major leagues for good by some time in August 2010.