Monday, March 15, 2010

Which former Cubs manager will destroy their phenom first?

Baseball is watching, very closely, the introduction of two big pitching prospects this year.

Last year's #1 draft pick, Stephen Strasburg, has made a couple of spring appearances now for the Nationals.  I saw his first performance last week, and he looked pretty good. Nice zip on the fastball. It was his first start, but players seemed to be able to make contact against him. 

Welcome to a baseball wasteland, Stephen.  (AP Photo/Charles Dharapak)

The other pitcher is Aroldis Chapman who signed with the Reds this offseason.  He is a defector from Cuba with some electric stuff.  On top of that, he's a left hander.  I've watched both of his appearances this spring, and he's been very good.  His fastball is just amazing.

 Is there any way this kid's arm doesn't fall off at some point?

Comparing Strasburg to what I saw from Chapman, Chapman looks way more impressive right now. I still expect both of these players to start the year in the minor leagues, but I don't think the Reds will have any discipline to keep Chapman down there much beyond May 1st.  The Nationals have been careful to say all the right things about how they plan to handle Strasburg. I need to see him a little more before I'll say what I think of him.  But the Nationals' struggles the last few years along with quickly declining attendance figures will probably, in the end, also push that team to have their phenom make his big-league debut in May. 

But think about this...each of these pitchers will be managed by a former Cubs manager.  And on top of that, each of these managers had a chance to manage a phenom pitcher with the Cubs.

Jim Riggleman was the manager when Kerry Wood broke into the major leagues in 1998.  We all know what Kerry did that season.  We also all know that Kerry broke down at the end of that season and missed the entire 1999 season.  Most people blame Riggleman for over using Wood during their drive toward the wildcard that year.

Dusty Baker wasn't there when Mark Prior broke onto the scene, but he managed Mark Prior in his first full season.  Prior was the can't miss guy...perfect mechanics...the most polished pitcher to come out of college.  After a run at the division title in 2003, a year when Prior won 18 games, the young right-hander never was the same.  He hasn't pitched a game since 2006.

So now both of these managers have another young phenom under their control.  Riggleman had the fireballer last time.  This time he has the polished college pitcher with perfect mechanics.  Baker had the polished college pitcher last time.  This time he has the young fireballer. 

Are these guys to blame for the destruction of two of the Cubs most celebrated prospects in the last 15 years?  Maybe...maybe not.  A ton has been said about how Riggleman handled Wood.  Baker's treatment of Prior might have been more sound.  (But, hell, you could even say that Baker broke Wood again during his stint in a Cubs uniform as well.) 

Can these managers commit the same crime again?  Possibly. I've said it before that I felt Jim Riggleman was the worst Cubs manager in since 1983.  Baker isn't too far behind.  Less is known about Riggleman and his ability to adapt and learn.  Baker, well, we all know what to expect from him in his time as manager of both the Giants and the Cubs.

Baker's Reds are closer to being contenders right now.  If his team is anywhere near a playoff berth, he very well could overuse Chapman.  We have already seen a young star pitcher break down for the Reds under Dusty's rule, Edinson Volquez.

The Nationals are at least a few years away from really having a chance to compete with the Braves, Phillies and (cough cough) Mets. The Marlins are even a tough match-up in that division right now. Little need to over-work Strasburg exists right now so it may be easier to be disciplined.

I don't want to see these guys fail in their careers as Major Leaguers...but part of me will be upset if these managers handle these two pitchers better than they handled Wood and Prior. It just wouldn't seem fair.