Rolling the dice with Strasburg

Today is likely the biggest day of young Stephen Strasburg’s life.

Later today, the Washington Nationals will likely select him with the first overall pick in the Major League Baseball Draft.

And then the heavens will open up and Strasburg will ride in on a cloud, hop onto the mound at Nationals Park and proceed to strike out 31 batters in a complete game no-hitter.

Yes, I know that only 27 guys would hit in that scenario. But this kid is that good.

He finished his junior season at San Diego State – under the direction of Tony Gwynn – with a 13-1 record, a 1.32 ERA and an amazing 195 strikeouts in 109 innings.

He’s a stud with a 100-mile-per-hour heater and a wicked slider to boot. He’s a slam dunk for the No. 1 overall pick.

But we need to turn the hype machine down a notch.

David Price was the top pick of the Rays in the 2007 Draft, and since he was picthing at Vanderbilt when he was drafted, he makes for a good case study.

Price was 11-0 as a junior at Vanderbilt, in a much tougher baseball conference. He fanned 175 hitters in 123 innings and signed a six-year, $11.25 million deal that  included a $5.6-million signing bonus.

He’s been solid as a major leaguer so far, but he did spend most of 2008 and the first part of 2009 in the minors.

I feel like I should start a site with all the buzz about this kid. There’s talk of him going straight to the Nationals’ rotation, skipping the minors all together. His agent, Scott Boras, has floated the notion of a six-year, $50 million deal for a guy that has never laced up a pair of spikes on a big league diamond.

Scouts love him. They say the ball jumps out of his hand like Tim Lincecum or Nolan Ryan. They say his changeup is so good he couldn’t use it in college – because those hitters just aren’t good enough.

I admit it. I’m impressed.

But, because I’m contrary, here are a few cautionary tales:

1. In the biggest game he pitched this season, Virginia beat him 5-1 in the first game of the NCAA Regionals. He fanned 15 batters in seven innings, but still allowed a homer and two earned runs in the loss.

2. According to the latest RPI rankings, Strasburg pitched in the seventh-best baseball conference in the land this season. The Mountain West ranked just behind the Big West and just ahead of the Sun Belt.

3. No. 1 picks don’t always fare well. It’s too early to tell about Price, but here’s a look at the pitchers who were the No. 1 overall picks in the draft in the last 20 years:

2006 – Luke Hochevar, Tennessee/Fort Worth Cats (American Association), Kansas City – It’s early, but he’s 7-15 in 30 career big league games with the Royals with a 5.51 ERA.

2002 – Bryan Bullington, Ball State, Pittsburgh – In fairness, he was probably chosen here for signability purposes, as the Pirates didn’t think they could sign B.J. Upton. He’s still trying to make it in Toronto, but he’s 0-5 in 13 career big league starts.

1997 – Matt Anderson, Rice, Detroit – I remember this guy. Threw 103, had the filthy slider and all that. Then he got hurt. A lot. He was 15-7 as a pro with a 5.19 ERA and has been out of baseball since 2005.

1996 – Kris Benson, Clemson, Pittsburgh – Another big-time talent that couldn’t/can’t stay healthy. He’s pitched for four different teams while having a slew of arm woes. He’s 69-74 as a pro and is currently pitching in Texas. His wife  is very easy on the eyes, however.

1994 – Paul Wilson, Florida State, New York Mets – He was also injured quite a bit and had a 40-58 record with a 4.86 ERA as a professional.

1991 – Brien Taylor, East Carteret High, Beaufort, N.C., New York Yankees – Remember this guy? Another can’t miss talent. He’s one of two top picks (Steve Chilcot, 1966) to never play in the Majors.

1989 – Ben McDonald, LSU, Baltimore – Wasn’t too bad, but injuries cut his career short. He was 78-70 with a 3.91 ERA.

He may be the next coming of Roger Clemens. As as a guy who watches 100 Nationals games a year on TV, I hope he is. But the history is hard to ignore here.

I wish Stephen Strasburg nothing but the best.

But you might want to temper that enthusiasm just a hair.


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