I’m back after two exciting weeks in and around Dumaguete City in the Philippines. An awful lot has happened since I was away: Lou Piniella’s decision to retire sooner rather than later, Roger Clemens getting indicted, the Giants’ vaunted starters posting the worst ERA of any starting rotation in the National League so far in August.
One thing that especially surprised me, however, was the fact Bryce Harper signed for only $9.9 million when Steven Strasburg got $15.1 million from the same team last year. I had expected Harper to get right around what Strasburg got.
Now that Strasburg has blown out his elbow tendon and will miss at least a full year to rehab his arm after Tommy John surgery, it’s easy to say that Strasburg got too much or that Harper got too little. However, you could have come to the same conclusion before Strasburg’s injury simply by looking at recent draft results for college pitchers and high school position players selected with the first pick of the draft.
The reasons that Strasburg got more money probably have to do with past signing amounts and the fact that top college pitchers are the amateur players closest to the major leagues in terms of ability at the time they are signed. Before Strasburg’s big payday, the record first contract was Mark Prior’s $10.5 million deal back in 2001.
The prior high for a position player was given to then college first baseman Mark Teixeira, who got a four-year, $9.5 million deal also in 2001.
Strasburg got more than Prior, and Harper got more than Teixeira. Also, Harper had less leverage than a player his age usually has because had he not signed, he would have had to return to junior college, the same level he played at last year, and where it would be extremely difficult for him to improve significantly in the eyes of major league organizations from his 2010 performance.
Most 18-year-old high school draft picks can threaten to go to a top four-year college program, where they will play at a much higher level, comparable to full-season Class A or A+ ball.
However, none of it really makes any sense. I mean, whose career would you rather have right now: Mark Prior’s or Mark Teixeira’s? And it’s not just these two players.
Here’s a list of all the high school position players taken with the first pick of the draft since 1987 when Ken Griffey, Jr. was selected: Griffey (1987), Chipper Jones (1990), Alex Rodriguez (1993), Josh Hamilton (1999), Adrien Gonzalez (2000), Joe Mauer (2001), Delmon Young (2003), Matt Bush (2004), Justin Upton (2005), Tim Beckham (2008).
It’s too early to tell with Beckham (he presently has a .347 on-base percentage in the pitcher friendly Class A+ Florida State League at age 20, which is promising for a shortstop), and Delmon Young has been kind of disappointing (although it’s worth noting he is currently hitting .305 with an .830 OPS and doesn’t turn 25 for another two weeks).
However, the only real dog of the bunch is Matt Bush, and in his case, everyone thought it was a terrible, bargain basement pick when the Padres selected him solely because he was local boy who would sign for way less than No. 1 money.
The other seven players on the list feature three sure-thing Hall-of-Famers, two guys reasonably likely to have Hall of Fame careers (Gonzalez and Mauer), another player who probably would have had at least a borderline Hall of Fame career if drugs had not derailed him for years (Hamilton), and a young major leaguer with everything you look for in a player who might develop into a Hall of Famer (Upton).
Here are all the college pitchers selected with the first pick of the Draft since 1987: Andy Benes (1988), Ben McDonald (1989), Paul Wilson (1994), Kris Benson (1996), Matt Anderson (1997), Bryan Bullington (2002), Luke Hochevar (2006), David Price (2007), and Stephen Strasburg (2009).
Now that we know Strasburg will be undergoing Tommy John surgery, is there even one pitcher whose career you would rather have than any one of the seven position players listed in the preceding paragraph?
I could see someone saying they’d rather have David Price’s career than Justin Upton’s career, given what we’ve seen so far, but I sure wouldn’t. The odds are much greater David Price will get seriously hurt more often than Upton going forward.
Of course, I can already hear some of you saying the best player isn’t always selected with the first pick of the draft, Mark Prior and Mark Teixeira being examples.
However, the first player selected is almost always a great prospect, and when it’s a high school position player overwhelmingly regarded as one of the very best players available, the position player’s chances of future major league success are significantly greater than any pitching prospect’s chances of future success due to the pitchers’ potential for major arm injuries.
Okay, the Nationals gave Bryce Harper a five-year deal, and who knows how long he’ll be in the minors before he’s ready for the show. However, he’s so young (17) that he could spend the entire five years in the minors and still come up young enough to have a Hall of Fame or near Hall of Fame career.
Finally, it’s worth noting that at the major league level, teams all recognize how much more valuable a superstar position player is than a superstar pitcher, due to the pitcher’s greater likelihood of future injury.
That’s why the biggest player contracts go overwhelmingly to position players. According to Cot’s Baseball Contracts, eight of the 10 most lucrative contracts in baseball history and 16 of the biggest 21 have gone to position players.