Stephen Strasburg's Minor League Apprenticeship a Major Mistake

Farid RushdiAnalyst IJanuary 24, 2010

PHOENIX - OCTOBER 16:  Washington Nationals prospect Stephen Strasburg #37, playing for the Phoenix Desert Dogs, pitches in the Arizona Fall League game against the Scottsdale Scorpions at Phoenix Municipal Stadium on October 16, 2009 in Phoenix, Arizona.  (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)
Christian Petersen/Getty Images

Knowing that the 2010 season wouldn’t be much better than 2009 without stronger pitching, Nationals’ general manager Mike Rizzo began his quest for at least two more starting pitchers long before last season came to an end.

John Lannan, last year’s ace, is a solid number-three major league starter. The back of the rotation, Rizzo thought, could be ably manned by the re-signed Scott Olsen and one among Ross Detwiler, Craig Stammen, and J.D. Martin.

In December, Rizzo signed Jason Marquis, who is an ideal number-two starter. He is a veteran, a great clubhouse guy, and has said several times that he looks forward to mentoring the team’s quickly-maturing young starters.

If on Opening Day the Nationals have four of the five rotation spots filled with Marquis, Lannan, Olsen, and Stammen, or if Rizzo is able to find one more veteran to supplant one of the youngsters, 2010 will not be a repeat of the past two seasons.

The Nationals could win 73-75 games.

But what about that final spot in of the rotation? Having a real number-one starter could help the Nationals break the .500 barrier and push towards 83 or more wins.

Where could they find a number-one starter?

Why, he’s already on the 40-man roster.

Stephen Strasburg will be in the rotation sometime in 2010, but the team seems to be pretending that he doesn’t exist, at least during the off season.

Rizzo had finalized a trade last month that would have brought the Nationals a Jordan Zimmermann clone but the other team backed out at the last minute.

Last week, he again told reporters that he’s trying to find one more starter.

Let’s say he does and the team breaks camp with four quality starters and one of the aforementioned kids entrenched in the back of the rotation.

What of Strasburg?

Rizzo and team president Stan Kasten want to protect their investment. They are afraid that starting Strasburg’s career in the major leagues might prove costly in the long term. “It would be better for Stephen,” said Kasten, “to begin his career in the minors and then arrive in Washington when we’re comfortable that he’ll succeed.”

Will Stephen Strasburg succeed immediately with the Nationals or does he need some seasoning in the minors?

The great thing about a sport with a 130 year track record is that to predict the future you only have to understand to the past.

In the last 40 years, six pitchers have been drafted with skill sets similar to Strasburg: Tom Seaver, Randy Johnson, Roger Clemens, Dwight Gooden, Kerry Wood, and Mark Prior.

Four of them, Clemens, Prior, Johnson, and Seaver, were college pitchers. Let’s take a look at those “can’t miss” prospects and see how much minor league experience they had and how they did in their first 30 starts in the major leagues.

Seaver was selected by the Atlanta Braves in the first round of the 1965 draft out of Southern Cal. However, NCAA rules were violated and the Mets ultimately received his rights.

Seaver pitched well for Triple-A Jacksonville in 1966, going 12-12, 3.13, striking out 8.1 batters per nine-innings. He joined the Mets in 1967 as a 22-year-old, and earned the Rookie of the Year Award with a fine 16-13, 2.76 record.

For his career, Seaver won 311 games with a 2.86 ERA. He won three Cy Young Awards.

Randy Johnson—also from Southern Cal—was drafted by the Montreal Expos in the second round of the 1985 draft. He spend three years in the minor leagues, but not because the Expos were trying to protect him.

He couldn’t throw strikes.

From 1986-88, Johnson went 28-22, 3.61 for West Palm, Jacksonville and Indianapolis. He averaged 10.2 strikeouts per nine-innings but allowed an amazing 7.2 walks per nine.

In his first 30 starts (1988 &1989), Johnson had a record of 10-13, 4.48, striking out 7.5 batters per nine-innings but walking 5.2. He continued to have troubles with his control until 1992 when his career took off.

Like Seaver, Johnson also won 300 games, finishing his career last season with a record of 303-166 with a 3.29 ERA. He was a five-time winner of the Cy Young Award.

Clemens, a graduate of the University of Texas, was the first-round pick of the Boston Red Sox in 1983. He started 20 games in the minor leagues in 1983 and ’84, going 13-6, 1.58.

After 30 games (1984 & 1985), Clemens record was a solid 16-9, 3.88 with 7.8 strikeouts per nine-innings. Over the next 23 years, Clemens won seven Cy Young Awards and ended his career with 354 wins and a strikeout per inning.

Mark Prior is the only pitcher among the group that didn’t win 300 games, but he was probably the best of the bunch.

Along with Seaver and Johnson, Prior was a graduate of USC. The Cubs drafted him second in the 2002 draft after going 25-7, 2.23 for the Trojans. Like Strasburg, Prior was good enough to go directly to the major leagues, but the Cubs—after watching injury problems steal Kerry Wood’s career—sent him to the minor leagues.

In half a season, Prior went 5-2, 1.93, averaging 12.9 strikeouts per nine-innings.

Prior was dominant in his first 30 games, going 15-9, 2.86, striking out 12.3 batters per nine-innings.

However, like teammate Kerry Wood, Prior developed arm problems and won just 27 more games before ending his career in 2006 at the age of 25.

Clemens and Prior played less than a full season in the minor leagues. Seaver played one season and Johnson—because of his control problems—played two-and-a-half seasons before being called up.

So should Stephen Strasburg begin the season with the Nationals or at Double-A Harrisburg, his likely minor league destination?

If he doesn’t pitch the third game of the season against the Phillies, something is very wrong.

Seaver, Clemons and Prior dominated their minor league competition, combining for a record of 35-19, 2.23. In their first 30 major league starts, their ERA increased by only 0.93 runs per game, to 3.16.

Jason Marquis had a minor league ERA of 4.68 when he was called up by the Braves in 2000. After posting a 5.02 ERA with Atlanta, he returned to the minors in 2001 and improved his ERA to 3.48.

He was hit hard in his second stint with the Braves and again was demoted to Triple-A Richmond where he again lowered his ERA, this time to 3.35. He never returned to the minor leagues.

Marquis wasn’t ready for the major leagues and needed time to refine his skills. But Stephen Strasburg isn’t Jason Marquis. He is like Seaver, Prior, and Clemens, but better.

If Strasburg’s ERA differential between the minor and major leagues is also less than a run, why send him to Harrisburg?

Were he to play an entire season in Washington, he’d probably win 12 games and have an ERA no higher than 4.00. That type of production would almost certainly get the Nationals to .500 and the team would be better able to draw “name” free agents during the off season.

If I were Mike Rizzo, I’d come out of Viera with a rotation of Jason Marquis, John Lannan, Strasburg, Scott Olsen, and Craig Stammen. Ross Detwiler could use one more season in the minors and J.D. Martin would strengthen the bullpen.

In 2011, Strasburg would have a year of valuable experience under his belt and Jordan Zimmermann—another number-one starter—would be back in the rotation after Tommy John surgery.

The Nationals would have a starting rotation of Jason Marquis, Stephen Strasburg, Jordan Zimmermann, John Lannan and Ross Detwiler. Drew Storen, Matt Capps and Brian Bruney would rule the back of the bullpen.

And the long, Nationals’ nightmare would finally be over.

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