All major league teams dream of having a pitcher who can do the following: throw a fastball at 98 mph or faster, throw a slider in the low-90′s, and throw a curveball in the low to mid-80′s. Stephen Strasburg can do all of those things, and he’s never pitched in a professional game in his life. He’s the product of San Diego State, currently managed by Hall of Famer Tony Gwynn.
Strasburg was selected by the Washington Nationals with the #1 overall pick in the 2009 amateur draft. He cannot have an agent before signing a contract with a major league team, but his advisor is baseball super-agent Scott Boras, the same man who has represented players negotiating the biggest contracts in the game such as Alex Rodriguez and Daisuke Matsuzaka. it is already being reported that Strasburg might demand a major league contract worth $50 million — about four times the previous record amount for a draft pick. that might seem warranted given Strasburg’s stuff, but a quick look at other pitchers drafted early in 1st rounds past shows they are an unpredictable breed.
Ben McDonald was selected #1 overall by the Baltimore Orioles in 1989. By that time he had already led the U.S. Olympic baseball team to a gold medal in 1988. McDonald was fast-tracked to the big leagues, where he started off with an impressive complete game shutout in his first major league game. despite the hot start, things never really panned out for McDonald, who was a mediocre pitcher before experiencing shoulder problems that ended his career in 1997.
Todd Van Poppel was the 14th overall selection by the Oakland Athletics in the 1990 amateur draft. He had just completed high school and would have been picked by the Atlanta Braves at #1 had he not told the Braves he wouldn’t sign with them. The Braves instead used their pick on Chipper Jones. Van Poppel signed a major league contract, which earned him more money but also gave the A’s less options in developing him in the minor leagues. He was in the big leagues after making just 32 minor league starts, and his highly-touted fastball was never able to dominate major league hitters. Van Poppel never won more than 7 games in a season and finished with a career record of 40-52.
Brien Taylor was another pitching phenom who was drafted with the #1 pick in 1991 by the new York Yankees. Like Strasburg and Van Poppel, Taylor was being advised by Scott Boras. The $1.55 million contract he signed with the Yankees was a record for a draft pick at the time. Taylor appeared on the cover of Baseball America and his 100 mph fastball was the talk of the baseball world. He was good in his first season in the minors, but he showed he could use a little refinement. then, in 1993, his shoulder was badly-damaged in a fist fight at a trailer park. He would never fully-recover from the injury. Taylor is now a bricklayer and lives with his parents on a street named after him during that ever-so-brief period nearly 20 years ago when he was the next big thing in baseball.
Strasburg has some things going for him that these other pitching phenoms never did. He has a college education, along with the experience of pitching against Division 1 college hitters. unlike McDonald, who also went to college, Strasburg was not overworked in an effort to win a championship. Tony Gwynn was very careful with Strasburg and limited the number of innings he pitched. if Strasburg has early success in the minor leagues, he’ll have Gwynn to thank for it. Strasburg will be under the watchful eyes of the Nationals top trainers and coaches as he progresses through the minors. He is the type of player capable of turning a dismal franchise around and making them contenders. that won’t happen overnight, and by the looks of things the Nationals will have more help in building their franchise when they get the #1 overall pick in the 2010 amateur draft, as they have the worst record in baseball right now and don’t seem to be looking to climb out of the cellar any time soon. perhaps Strasburg will soon be pitching to Bryce Harper, the 500-foot-homer-hitting 16-year-old catcher who will be eligible for the draft next year.