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Stephen Strasburg and Bryce Harper: Will Nats Have a Bright Future?

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Stephen Strasburg and Bryce Harper: Will Nats Have a Bright Future?
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Stephen Strasburg, the Nationals’  “Baseball Jesus” has been placed on the disabled list for the second time this season, and the team’s management and fans are understandably quite concerned.

Some people say that it is normal for a pitcher to have some arm soreness, especially since this is his first year of professional baseball, and his body is merely adjusting to his new pitching schedule.

That might have been the case for his initial shoulder injury.  But the latest injury seems much more ominous.  When a pitcher feels pain in a forearm tendon, that is not a good sign.  That feels like the first step towards Tommy John surgery and over a year of rehabilitation.

Many experts have said that Strasburg was at high risk of injury.  Even for pitchers with “perfect” mechanics, the act of pitching a baseball is unnatural for the human body.  Any pitcher is going to suffer a bit.  But some claim that Strasburg’s mechanics are not good, and they leave him at greater risk of injury.  They point to former Cubs phenom Mark Prior as a case of another talented pitcher whose poor pitching form derailed his potentially great career.

Even if the injury is not a long-term concern, it is still disappointing.  He was having an impressive rookie season, and more importantly, seemed to revitalize baseball in Washington.  People actually talked about the Nationals and for perhaps the first time since the team debuted in 2005, there was genuine excitement about them.

His debut might have been the greatest moment in Nationals' history.  While the team has had a full stadium before, it was usually due to a high drawing opponent like the Red Sox.  But for Strasburg’s debut, there was actually a full crowd cheering for the Nationals.

Even better, Strasburg was amazing that night.  He absolutely dominated the Pittsburgh Pirates, and showed pitching ability that the league hadn’t seen in some time.  The closest comparison that anyone could make was to a young Dwight Gooden.

The rest of his year hasn’t quite matched that first start, but he’s still done well.   Like any pitcher, he’s had some games where his best stuff simply wasn’t there.  And he’s also had some games where the opponent found ways to hit him.  But for the most part, he looks capable of living up to the hype.  That is, if he can stay healthy.

If this injury turns out to be no big deal, and he comes back next season to embark on a long career, what can reasonably be expected from him?

1. He will have some games where he absolutely dominates.  He might have the best “stuff” of any pitcher in baseball.  Even if you disregard the near-100 MPH fastball, his curveball and changeup are also devastating.  If he is in command of these pitches, he will be near unhittable.

2. He will have some games where he walks a lot of guys.  With that much power behind his pitches, it’s difficult to assume that he’ll be able to maintain perfect control.

3. Teams that have a disciplined plate approach, and try to go opposite field against him may have some success.  When he pitched against the Royals, they took this approach and hit a lot of singles.  They didn’t score many runs, but just enough to win the game.

4. He’ll give up a fair share of home runs.  Power pitchers are normally susceptible to giving up home runs (the faster the pitch, the harder it can be hit) and Strasburg is about as powerful as they come.

But once again, this all depends on him staying healthy.  If not, he’ll just be another phenom who flamed out.

In more positive news, they added another potential phenom when they came to terms with Bryce Harper, their first round draft pick in June’s amateur draft.  He’s been called the “LeBron James of baseball” and his talent level has been compared to a young Alex Rodriguez.

They signed him for $9.9 million, which is the highest total ever given to a non-pitcher amateur draft pick.  And yet, it is far below what some people estimated that he might get from the Nats.  His agent Scott Boras claimed that Harper was a “once-in-a-generation” talent, and would deserve a record contract.  This is not especially surprising, since every year, Boras seems to declare one of his clients to be a “once-in-a-generation” talent. 

Last year, he was saying the same thing about Strasburg.  It was obvious that Harper wasn’t going to get anywhere near Strasburg’s record deal for an amateur.  Strasburg was an accomplished college pitcher who looked to be almost ready for the majors when he was drafted.  As good a hitter as Harper may be, he’s still only 17, and will need at least a couple of minor league seasons, especially since he will be switching positions from catcher to right field.

In addition to signing Harper, the Nats also signed a few of their lower draft picks to large contracts, going well above the suggested amount provided by Major League Baseball’s slotting system.  For those unfamiliar with the slotting system: MLB comes up with a suggested signing price for each draft pick and encourages teams to stay near those figures when agreeing to terms.

Conforming with the slotting system is a great way to keep your minor league system free of high-end talent.  Basically, the players’ agents look at the suggested slot cost and say “That’s nice.  But here’s what it is really going to take to get a deal done.”  If the two sides can’t come to an agreement, the player can re-enter the draft the next year and the team is awarded a compensation pick.

While this might seem to be a lose-lose situation, it’s really much worse for the team than it is for the player.  A high school player has the option of going to college (and in some cases improving his draft position).  College players obviously have less leverage.  When they go unsigned, they usually end up playing a season in an independent league, which can often be comparable in talent level to the minor league that the team would have assigned them to.

So the Nationals did the right thing, paid the necessary money, and they now have Harper in their system.    If his development goes as planned, he is expected to make his major league debut in 2012.  Of course, since he is only 17, his development could take much longer.  So don’t count on him carrying the Nationals’ lineup anytime soon.

One final word about the Nationals: Their TV announcers are bad.

The usual announcers are play-by-play man Bob Carpenter and color analyst Rob Dibble.  Now I understand that a team’s announcers are going to be “homers,” and they will be rooting for the home team.  And I also understand that trying to be optimistic about a team that constantly loses must be a bit wearing.  

But here’s a few suggestions: 

1. If a call goes against the Nationals, it is not a “travesty”.  Dibble acts like every close call that is not in the Nationals favor is a crime against the sport.  Especially when it comes to borderline balls and strikes.  This leads to…

2. Enough with the pitch tracker.  Over the past few years, TV broadcasts have started to use on-screen graphics to show a projection of the strike zone, and determine if a pitch is in the strike zone.  The Nationals’ broadcasts seem to use their version, the Qinetic Pitch Track on just about every pitch. 

The problem is that these projections aren’t really exact, and don’t take into account the variability of each batter’s strike zone.  That doesn’t stop Dibble from ranting every time a strike call that goes against the Nats doesn’t match what the pitch track shows.

3. Please stop with the overbearing praise of Ryan Zimmerman.  I realize that he’s been the shining hope for the franchise over the past few seasons.  But the announcers can’t seem to praise him and his accomplishments enough, even when unmerited.

If Zimmerman strikes out after fouling off a few pitches, he did not “hang tough” or “give the pitcher a battle.”  He struck out.  And yes, he is a good fielder.  But is it necessary to act as if every routine grounder he fields was a highlight worthy play?  I don’t think a ball has been hit to him all season that didn’t prompt them to mention that he won a Gold Glove last year.

It’s a shame because Zimmerman is a talented young player.  But after listening to the Nationals announcers, I have grown to dislike him.

Then again, after hearing fill-in announcer Johnny Holliday this past weekend, I have a new appreciation for Carpenter.  Holliday may be an accomplished football announcer, but listening to him call a baseball game was painful.  It came across like someone said, “Hey, my uncle is a big fan of the team!  Why don’t we let him call the game?”

The happiest possible resolution to this problem is if Strasburg and Harper actually come through and lead the Nationals into contention.  Then, while the announcers might still be bad, at least they’d be doing bad announcing for good baseball.

Originally published on my blog: Stranger in a Strange Land

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