8/17/09

What About Stephen?

So, as most of you are already well aware, today (tomorrow?) at midnight* is MLB's amateur draftee signing deadline.  And, as we imagine you're also aware, there is a player who has yet to sign, who is demanding many millions of dollars more than any draftee has ever received, who would, in all likelihood, already be the best pitcher on his team.  So, yeah, we're talkin about Stephen Strasburg today.  Seems timely, no?

*We hate the syntax issues inherent in dealing with midnight. We think how a person refers to it has a lot to do with their own tendencies - night owls would refer to it as today, early birds as tomorrow - but we, of course, have no evidence to support that and offer it up merely as a thought exercise.  The bigger point to be made here, we suppose, is: who really cares?  Also, yes, we have now fully embraced asterisk points.  We hope you enjoy, or at least don't find yourself utterly turned off.

So, that said, let's take a look at the situation.  The Washington Nationals are currently 43-75, which is the league's worst record.  The Kansas City Royals* have lost 71 games, but the Nats play in a tougher division, and we'd have to imagine that they're going to end up with the league's worst record - and another #1 pick.  We imagine this in part because the Nationals, allowing 5.42 runs per game, are the worst in the National League at preventing runs - and we know this is a crazy idea, but it sems to us that a potential ace like Stephen Strasburg may be just the ticket to bring that number down to a somewhat respectable level.

*The Kansas City Royals, who actually gainfully employ BRUCE FREAKING CHEN, have lost 71 games...

Now, you can bet that Strasburg and the ever-present (lurking?) Scott Boras know that.  They know that Strasburg's 100-mph fastball, knee-buckling slider, and pinpoint command make for a once-in-a-generation talent that will not come cheaply.  You can bet that the Nationals know how good Strasburg is and how much he can potentially help the team - to say nothing of how damaging it would be to lose him.  So it would appear that we have an impasse - at least, until the team makes a ludicrous offer that Strasburg has to accept.  But will that happen?  Does it NEED to happen?  Let's take a closer look.

If the Nats fail to sign Strasburg:

Strasburg/Boras do not see the Nationals' offer as adequate for Strasburg to deign to sign.  Strasburg goes back to college, and re-enters the draft the next year.  Only....guess who has the number one pick?  That's right, the Nationals!  And guess who else is eligible to be drafted?  That's right, Bryce Harper*!  So now, Strasburg has a conundrum.  He's already had contentious, failed negotiations with the team picking first overall, only this time there's a comparable raw talent to be had.  And he's an everyday player, to boot.  So all of a sudden, Strasburg may not be able to make exorbitant demands.  He may have the same talent, but maybe he disappoints in his senior year, or even - and we sincerely hope this doesn't happen - gets hurt.  If either of those happen, you can bet that his stock will plummet and he'll end up losing out on a lot of money.  And if he has another spectacular season, he's still labeled as unsignable - and with good reason, if the negotiations going on now are any indication - and drops in the draft anyway, being left to hope that he'll fall to a team willing to spend over slot.  But which of the teams with bad enough records to be high enough in the draft to have a good chance at him (e.g. Pirates, Royals, Padres, Orioles, A's, Reds) have been willing to spend over slot in the past?  Well...none.  All of a sudden, the 2010 draft becomes very interesting.  Oh, and the Nationals suffer a huge public relations setback because they weren't willing to do what it takes to improve their team.  There's that minor detail. 

*You may not know about Bryce Harper yet.  But it's for your own benefit that you do.  Here's an excellent Sports Illustrated article that details his eye-popping talents.  And if you do know about him, but haven't read the article...well, it's worth your time.

If the Nats Sign Strasburg:

To be honest, we'd love to see them plug him straight into the rotation.  But that doesn't really make a lot of sense, and here's why: 

  • They've got nothing to play for this year
  • Letting Strasburg make a regular start for the rest of the year unnecessarily taxes his (now very expensive) right arm
  • If they continue playing poorly, they could end up with Strasburg and Bryce Harper - though one has to wonder if they've the money to sign both.
  • Ownership will probably want to play the dirty trick of messing with his service clock, such that they get an extra year of team control.  If you call him up now, his clock starts running, and you lose what control you'd have of him in 2016, and for a team like the Nats (read: a not very good squad of baseballers), the long-term view is crucial.

So there we have the potential outcomes of this imbroglio. But there are more issues to address here than the costs/benefits of Strasburg's decision to sign or not.  One such issue, as raised by Hard Hittin' Ryan Zimmerman, is:

Should He Just Take What He Can Get and Report?

The answer, in a word, is NO.  Absolutely not.  We don't understand how athletes are almost universally looked down upon for wanting to squeeze every last dollar out of their employers.  This is especially a sticking point for us in the NFL, an extraordinarily dangerous sport in which the players are lucky to make it through three seasons and where the contracts aren't even guaran-goddamn-teed.  But even for Strasburg, who will get guaranteed money - and a record-setting amount of it, at that - there's a signfiicant amount of risk involved.  With MLB's system, a player's pay is dictated by the pre-arbitration minimums for the first three years of their career.  And then they get to politely ask their teams for a raise for each of the next three years in arbitration, a raise which the teams will always declare unreasonable.  And then, finally, they get to negotiate with all 30 teams on the open market for the right to sign a ludicrously high-paying contract that will ideally set them up for life.  Wheeee!

Of course, that leaves out all the nasty things that can happen in the six years between a player's breaking into the league and being able to sign a free agent contract - like, say, an injury that costs him a season and many millions of dollars.  Or a case of lost talent, a la Ben Grieve or any other young prospect who put together a promising season or two and then utterly flamed out.  The point is, there's so much that can go wrong for an athlete in any sport, that we always support them getting as much money as they can.  So, Ryan Zimmerman, while it's great that you got drafted, signed your deal, and then got a cushy five-year deal despite not really being that great and not showing any signs of improvement, that does not mean that you can tell possibly the greatest pitcher we've seen since we don't know like Tom Seaver or something that he should just take the offer and show up.  

Well, that was a long sentence.  Let's now change course once more, without warning or ado, shall we?  Because we think that this next is the most important issue of the entire negotiation.

Is Strasburg Worth It?

Good question, KCSD! We think there are three schools of thought here:

First, the risk-averse who see young pitchers as eminently fragile and unlikely to provide a good return on the team's investment.

Second, the ones who drool over the talent that oozes from Strasburg's tall frame*.

*And if that image isn't enough to turn you to the risk-averse side, we don't know what will. 

And, of course, we have the third school, which is that of compromise.  We tend to fall in this camp; yes, there is a great deal of risk involved with young pitching - especially when the pitcher in question has questionable mechanics* like Strasburg - but, come on, you can't NOT want a kid like this on your team!  HE THROWS 100 MPH! AND HAVE YOU SEEN THAT BREAKING BALL?! 

*Of course, the study of mechanics is an inexact science.  It was said that Mark Prior had perfect mechanics, but according to at least one site, his delivery put a great deal of undue pressure on his scapular muscles, which are not load-bearing and not designed for the stress of pitching, thereby leading in part to his multitude of injuries.  What we will say, from watching a few videos of Strasburg, is that he does seem to throw across his body a bit and he doesn't seem to use his body efficiently, like, say, Tim Lincecum does.  It seems like his arm bears all the stress, and when you're throwing 100 mph and snapping off 90-mph sliders, that is an enormous deal of stress.  Pitching is not a natural movement, but there are steps pitchers can take to minimize the risk they incur - and we aren't positive that Strasburg takes many of those steps.

Sorry, we got carried away with the talent thing.  ANYWAY, the question of what, exactly, Strasburg is worth is up in the air.  We don't know how much money is even on the table, but let's assume it's about $20MM to sign - or roughly twice Prior's previous (lawl) record-setting bonus.  

  • Is this a lot of money for an amateur? Well, yes.  
  • Is there precedent for such a deal? Not in baseball, no, but that's partly beacuse of the nature of young baseball players.  They usually require several years of development and maturation.  In other sports like football and basketball, rookies are expected to contribute immediately, and are paid as such.  This is especially true in football, where rookie salaries often easily outstrip the veteran contracts.  Strasburg is expected to be able to contribute immediately, and since the team wouldn't have to wait for him to be ready to pitch, they can pay him like a regular member of the starting rotation.
  • What if he fails? The way we see it, spending $20 mil on Strasburg, even if he fails, is a better investment than a good deal of the contracts that we've seen handed out in recent years.  Let's say Strasburg makes it in the league for like 5 years, leaves with a career ERA around 5, and never really made an impact.  He'll have made less money in that time than, say, Miguel Batista, who's been almost perfectly average for 15 years.  He'll have made less money than Carlos Silva, who's been distinctly below average in his career.  He'll have made less than Sidney Ponson, Jeff Suppan, Bronson Arroyo and, in general, most of your middling starters - to say nothing of overpaid relievers.  So, really, have you hamstrung your team THAT badly?  We say no.

So, let's consider it all at once now.  Strasburg has the most leverage he'll ever have right now - Ryan Zimmerman is right about that - because he could easily go play another year in college and graduate and all that good stuff.  The Nationals are hopefully as bad as they'll ever be right now, so they need him more than ever.  He's a phenomenal talent whom it would cost only money to acquire, even if it is a LOT of money.  He is entitled, in our minds, to gun for as much money as he can because of the intemperate nature of athletes' bodies, and pitchers in particular. And, if the Nats pay him what he wants, they'll still be spending money in a much better way than did the GMs of teams who shelled out big bucks to mediocre pitchers.  Strasburg has the chance to be much, much more, such that the Nationals really can't afford to not offer him what he's asking for.  Just suck it up, Stan...you might have something special on your hands.  And Nationals fans need that right now.   

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