06/09/09 1:00 AM EST
The one? All eyes on Strasburg
Expected to be first pick, phenom has met every test
By Jonathan Mayo / MLB.com
Sure, in his perfect world, Strasburg would be preparing to pitch in the upcoming College World Series. Instead, he'll simply have to settle for being the No. 1 overall pick in the 2009 First-Year Player Draft.
From the moment the 2008 Draft concluded until he threw his last pitch in a regional loss against Virginia, the right-hander has been the presumptive No. 1 pick. Not once did he shrink from the attention, instead putting together one of the best collegiate seasons in memory to place himeslf on the brink of entering professional ball as perhaps the greatest pitching prospect of all time.
The argument isn't made from his junior season alone. Over his three years at San Diego State, Strasburg went 22-7 with a 1.59 ERA, holding hitters to a .171 average while striking out 375 and walking only 50 over 243 1/3 innings. Add to his resume an impressive stint with the bronze-winning U.S. Olympic team, in which he was the lone amateur player, and it all comes in the perfect pitching package: a 6-foot-4, 220-pound machine that delivers consistently electric stuff. In other words, he's an ace in the making.
Presumably done with his college career, with his responsibilities as a student out of the way, the Golden Spikes Award finalist will settle in today for the Draft with his friends and family in San Diego to watch the next stage of his baseball life unfold on MLB.com and MLB Network. He'll hear his name called, celebrate the moment with those closest to him, then head to the headquarters of his adviser, Scott Boras, in Newport Beach, Calif., to meet the press in his first official act as a draftee of the Washington Nationals.
Since his final collegiate start on May 29, Strasburg has had his exit interviews with the Aztecs coaching staff, played some golf and even made a trip to Magic Mountain. It is the calm before the storm that's to come for the flame-throwing righty.
All season, Strasburg had one focal point, getting San Diego State back to the postseason for the first time since 1991. He did that, piling up video-game-like numbers along the way and putting together a perfect 13-0 record. He did just about everything he could in his regional start, striking out 15 and giving up two runs in seven innings. His first loss of the season against Virginia ended his postseason dreams and likely his college career.
That college career is likely over because the Major Leagues beckon, and with it, assuredly a multi-million dollar contract. And unless there's a late change in their already announced plans, it'll be the Washington Nationals making the call tonight to select Strasburg as the top pick. Then the spotlight will quickly shift from proving he deserved to be the top Draft prospect in the country to helping turn around the Nationals organization. Fairly or unfairly, as soon as the words "The Washington Nationals select ..." are uttered, Strasburg will immediately become the face of the team.
The clock then will start ticking on two fronts. The first is the signing clock. The rumors of a big price tag surrounding Strasburg have been well documented, that the Boras-advised pitcher will command the largest contract handed to a draftee. That record could very well be set, even if it doesn't approach the $50 million figure he's rumored to be seeking. After not signing their first-round pick a year ago, the Nationals have given every indication that won't be the case this year, not with Strasburg as the prize.
The one question, however, is how quickly that signing will occur. Boras' first-round clients have typically not agreed to terms until right up against the signing deadline, which this year is once again on Aug. 17. The timing of when Strasburg signs on the dotted line will greatly impact that second clock, the one marking the time it takes the future ace to gets to the nation's capital and join the Nats' big league rotation.
Many have voiced the opinion that Strasburg could go straight to the Majors post-Draft. That might depend on when he signs. If he waits until that Aug. 15 cutoff, he will have been out of competitive action for two and a half months, and that kind of leap may be unrealistic. Even if he signs quickly -- and few predict that scenario -- there might be a sentiment to get him there in a hurry to both justify the investment and put fans in the seats. But while it might be an interesting public-relations maneuver, the Nationals will likely protect their investment in the best way they see fit. If it's a trip straight to the Majors, so be it. If it's more of an easing into the pro life with an eye on a big 2010 splash, then that's how it will play out.
"I'm not sure what he's going to do in that situation," said Rusty Filter, Strasburg's pitching coach at San Diego State. "As a freshman, it was probably three, four weeks into the season and we made him our closer. We put him in every situation possible. There were times we'd intentionally walk guys to load the bases and he would pitch himself out of it. He's had situations this year in really bad weather, in bad conditions, with the ball flying out. Every test we've put him in, he's surpassed."
The statistical evidence of him being close to big league ready is convincing, albeit viewed through the prism of having only faced college hitters, not Major Leaguers. Strasbug led the nation in strikeouts and strikeouts-per-nine innings. He was second in ERA and third in wins. He only gave up more than two earned runs once over 15 starts, reaching double-digit strikeouts in all but two outings. He never walked more than two in a single start. In early May, he no-hit Air Force while striking out 17. He's hit triple digits on the radar gun repeatedly. More important, he's maintained his velocity deep into his starts, something all Major League scouts look for when evaluating a pitcher as a potential starter.
"I think that is what has separated him," Filter said. "I've seen a lot of good college pitchers, and I think the one difference is that his high-end velocity is there and it's been there the last two years. I think that's why he gets a lot of recognition. The other part of it is he never takes a pitch off. He never takes anybody lightly. He prepares the same no matter who we play. That's just a part of his nature."
The combination of size, stuff -- particularly the velocity -- and command have put Strasburg into another league completely. Citing these attributes, along with Strasburg's off-the-charts makeup, some scouts say he's the greatest pitching prospect to come around since the advent of the Draft in 1965.
He has lived up to dealing with the pressures and expectations surrounding him all spring in a mature and, yes, professional manner. From the dozens of scouts at every game to the exceptionally high volume of national-media coverage, the spotlight has shone on Strasburg brighter than on any Draft prospect in history. Instead of that glare causing a distraction, Strasburg separated himself even more from the rest of this Draft class, and perhaps any other amateur player in memory.
However things unfold, one thing is certain: This has been an unprecedented time of hype and expectation. Whether Strasburg lives up to it remains to be seen. And it's quite possible the hyperbole and fanfare surrounding a top pick won't reach these levels for a long, long time.
But all of that is down the road. Tonight the world of Stephen Strasburg will change forever.
Jonathan Mayo is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.