Strasburg breathes new life into Nats
First overall pick in '09 Draft a franchise-changing talent
It is not every day that a baseball player is a full-fledged legend before he's even selected in the First-Year Player Draft. The corollary from the team standpoint is that a baseball club does not often get the opportunity to draft a fully formed legend, even with the first pick of the first round.
But Stephen Strasburg appears to be that once-in-a-lifetime performer, a pitcher who not only throws a fastball that exceed 100 mph, but who also has a full arsenal of pitches, not to mention superb command. Many of his numbers compiled while pitching for San Diego State University are simply other-worldly, such as his 195 strikeouts -- against just 19 walks -- over 109 innings this season.
And now he has been selected with the first pick of the 2009 Draft by the Washington Nationals. Strasburg is not only what the Nationals need on the field -- a potential star of the first magnitude -- but what the franchise needs in general. He's a shot in the arm, a lift, a boost, something about which the Nats' fan base can feel exceptionally good.
When baseball returned to our nation's capital in 2005, in the form of the former Montreal Expos, there was a tremendous surge of excitement. And the team, for its part, was a genuine contender for the first half of the '05 season. Its level of performance dwindled in the second half, but overall this was still a competitive, .500 baseball team.
But after that, the team's performance diminished and, for the most part, so did the public's excitement. There was another burst of enthusiasm in 2008, for the opening of Nationals Park, a first-class facility in every way. Its setting is at the symbolic center of the Republic, making a game at Nationals Park a unique, even uplifting, experience.
But the uplifting part of the experience gets challenged when the home team goes 59-102. So another wave of goodwill and positive emotion largely dissipated.
The baseball portion of the Nationals' operation is now in better hands, with acting general manager Mike Rizzo, an astute evaluator of talent with a track record of building a strong base of talent from his previous work for the Arizona Diamondbacks.
That is one major plus for the future of the Nationals. And here is the basic building block for the vast majority of baseball franchises -- the Draft. Getting the first pick, of course, signifies that you just had an exceptionally bad season. But the first pick offers the opportunity to get on the road to recovery in a hurry. And this first pick seems to offer even more than that.
The touting of Strasburg has become a full-time occupation in some journalistic circles. The notion is not merely that he is the best of this year's Draft class, but that he could be the best pitcher to ever be available in the Draft.
The scouting reports on Strasburg are unanimous; there is no real debate on the scope of his astounding talents. The only troubling aspect here is the truly spotty record of pitching phenoms who have been labeled as can't-miss prospects.
The list is long, but let's glance at one relatively recent example: Mark Prior in 2001. Coming out of USC, Prior did not quite have Strasburg's jaw-dropping velocity, but he had everything else you could ask for -- and then some -- in a pitching prospect. When the Minnesota Twins, troubled by the anticipated high cost of signing Prior, drafted catcher Joe Mauer with the first pick, they were criticized in some quarters.
But Mauer has become the best all-around catcher of his generation, a batting champion, a first-rate defensive catcher, and now an emerging power hitter to boot. Prior, meanwhile, won 18 games for the 2003 Chicago Cubs and appeared to be ready to fulfill his vast promise. But since then his career has trailed off into a long series of injuries. He is currently attempting one more rehabilitation in the farm system of the San Diego Padres.
So even the greatest pitching prospects can falter, especially given the relatively fragile nature of the profession. But this hardly means that Strasburg is doomed. He might be the prospect who becomes every bit as great as the advance publicity suggests.
The Nationals now have to strike a deal with Strasburg, and they don't have the best leverage in the world. Strasburg's representatives will be asking for a record-breaking financial package for a draftee. Washington, needing a boost, will be under significant pressure to sign Strasburg. These are not circumstances that generate bargains.
On the other hand, a pitcher of this sort -- one who combines power with precision, velocity with command -- is a rare and special talent no matter the position of the club. In this case, a pitcher who has already generated global recognition is a perfect fit for the Nationals.
They need to not only make a splash, they also need to offer their fan base genuine hope for a brighter future. And for such an endeavor, a ready-made legend can come in handy.
Mike Bauman is a national columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.