Is Strasburg ready for big leagues?
Prospect will have to make adjustments at next level
There are a series of numbers that have many in and around baseball wondering if Stephen Strasburg can and should go straight from San Diego State into the Washington Nationals' rotation.
The first is 103. That's how many miles per hour Strasburg's fastball has been clocked at points during his junior season at San Diego State. Add in figures like 12-0, 1.34 ERA, 174 strikeouts and 18 walks in 94 1/3 innings, and it's natural to assume he's not far from being big-league ready.
The next set of numbers are 6-4, 220 -- height and weight. The right-hander has worked very hard to give himself a virtually perfect pitcher's body, the type any scout loves to see. He's physically mature and won't need much conditioning to be able to endure the rigors of a long season.
The last figure is 50 million. Real or not, that's what's been floated as the amount of dollars Strasburg and his advisor Scott Boras will be seeking from whatever team takes him. If you're going to demolish a record in terms of money given to a draftee, you might as well maximize the investment by getting him in your rotation as soon as possible, right?
"If you're going to make the kind of investment that you're going to have to make to sign a guy like Stephen, they're going to want to get return on their investment, I'm guessing pretty quickly," said Hall of Famer and San Diego State coach Tony Gwynn. "Each organization has a plan they want to fulfill. If it's the Nationals, it's a little bit different because they want to put people in the seats and they probably want to put people in the seats this year."
That answers the "could he" part of it to an extent, or at least what some of the background rationale could be to having him up that quickly. Then there's the "could he" in terms of his stuff and raw ability. There appears to be some consensus on that front, even if the endorsements come with a caveat or two.
"His stuff is good enough to fit in all 30 rotations," one scouting director said. "But those guys up there are pretty good. The last thing they're going to have to find out about him -- and with all pitchers in this Draft -- can he do what he does when the guys he's facing have the ability to hit him 450 feet?"
"I'm a college pitching coach, that's all I've ever been," San Diego State pitching coach Rusty Filter said. "But if you're asking me, the answer is 'yes,' without any hesitation. But I'm not a Major League coach. They're the best players in the world and I'm going to get a kick out of watching it try to happen, I'll tell you that much."
"I think he could," Gwynn added. "You have to be careful with young guys. You don't want them to go up there and experience failure. The big leagues is a different animal. We've built him up so much this spring that people expect him to get to the big leagues this year, get to the big leagues and have success. It doesn't work that way. It's a learned trade, I believe. He's still got some things he's got to learn.
"Can he do it? Yeah, he probably could. He probably could step in there and be competitive. Is he going to win every game? No, he's not. Is he going to get hit? Yeah, he's going to get hit because those guys in the big leagues are the best in the world."
That leads to the "should he" part of the discussion. Many things point to Strasburg being a one-of-a-kind type of talent, one that could buck whatever historical trends there were about other players who didn't spend a day in the Minor Leagues before making their big league debut.
While there have been a couple position players -- Dave Winfield in particular, Bob Horner as another example -- who have excelled, the list of pitchers does not make it seem like such a fantastic idea. Burt Hooten won over 150 games and went to an All-Star Game. Mike Morgan pitched 22 seasons and won 141 games, though he also lost 186. Jim Abbott had some wonderful moments, but that was about it. The others on the list are bound to convince any executive to err on the side of caution with Strasburg.
"I've seen a lot of guys that have gone out and have tried to do that, not necessarily straight to the big leagues, but have been rushed, the premium prospects," the scouting director said. "The one thing these guys find out quickly is the Major Leagues is called the Major Leagues because these hitters are very good. It may work the first time they see them, but the second time -- and this is the learning curve of being a Major League pitcher and a winner -- they have to be able to make adjustments. That's where the experience part of it starts to kick in.
"What he's facing now -- it's not the SEC he's pitching in. He's really good, he's at the top of my list. He's not facing the best college hitters in the country, much less the best hitters sitting there in the Major Leagues. We'll see what happens."
If anyone knows about the differences between the Mountain West Conference and the Major Leagues, it's the guy in the San Diego State dugout watching Strasburg every week. He's been sure to help his ace stay grounded, but after watching the guy dominate for the past two years, he also has a feeling the right-hander would figure things out.
"As I tell Stephen all the time, even though he's having success at this level, that next level is a pretty big jump," Gwynn said. "At the college level, you can get guys out without having to throw strikes. At the next level, it becomes a little bit more difficult. You throw that breaking ball and it bounces in the dirt in professional ball, they'll spit at that and wait for you to come to them with something they can hit. That's a whole other learning process he'll have to go through.
"Legitimately, he's worried about us getting to where we'd like to go, but deep down, he's already taking a picture of what it's going to be like at the next level. When that time comes, I think he'll be fine."
Jonathan Mayo is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.