Friday, August 27, 2010

Just don’t bother with the phenom pitchers

Stephen Strasburg is broken.

You can make all the jokes you want about Jim Riggleman. Yes…he’s a bad manager. Yes, I still think he ruined Kerry Wood.

The thing is, Riggleman and the Nationals did everything right with Stephen Strasburg. They limited his pitch count. They only were going to let him pitch a limited number of innings this year. They shut him down the instance he felt any discomfort.

Nothing more could have been done to protect this kid…and he still broke.

Strasburg appears to be headed toward Tommy John surgery and will likely miss all of 2011.

It just seems as though none of these great, can’t miss, pitching prospects ever pan out.

I know us Cubs fans are a little grizzled about this because of the failures of Prior and Wood, but think about it for a little while. When was the last time that a can’t-miss prospect was drafted by a team, and in the end made a significant impact long term impact at the major league level?

One could argue that Tim Lincecum might be…but I don’t think he was considered a phenom when he was drafted and I think the jury is still out on him on whether he will be able to maintain long term success.

During the last 30 years, who have been the pitchers that have dominated the era? Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine, John Smoltz, Nolan Ryan, Tom Seaver, Roger Clemens, Randy Johnson, Don Sutton.

Seaver might have been the only one in that group that actually was a phenom…and came on to the scene and just dominated from the beginning. Everyone else slowly worked their way to become great, spending a few years in the minor leagues, and struggling the first couple years in the big-leagues before finally becoming the hall-of-fame (or future hall-of-fame) pitchers that we all know.

Look at today’s best pitchers…Cliff Lee, Roy Halliday, Chris Carpenter, CC Sabathia, not phenoms when drafted.

So the Nationals drafted Strasburg last year. They paid him a ton of money. They were going to build their franchise around this kid.

And now he’s broken.

Can he comeback? Of course. But if only he’s only 12 starts into his big-league career and he already needs to have Tommy John surgery, why should we suspect that he’ll be any less injury prone in the future? I heard an interview a couple months ago with Don Cooper, the respected pitching coach of the White Sox, saying that he foresaw problems coming for Strasburg…and this was before Strasburgs first stint on the DL.

The list of these phenoms is extensive…they might be really good for a while, but they just burn out quickly. Dwight Gooden, Mark Fidrych, Todd Van Poppel, Ben McDonald…add Mark Prior to that list, and there are others too…phenom pitchers don’t work out! They just don’t.

But what is a team to do? Should they just not draft the best pitcher available? It’s a strange situation. How do you not draft a player like Strasburg. And once you do draft him, how do you not give him tons of money? You have to. Maybe you can quickly take advantage of that player before he burns out. The Mets did with Gooden. The Cubs did with Prior. Hell, the Marlins kinda did with Dontrelle Willis (he wasn’t exactly a phenom, though).

The idea of building a troubled franchise around one of these players just doesn’t work, though. The Mets were good besides Dwight Gooden. The Cubs had Kerry Wood and Sammy Sosa and Moises Alou.

These guys just don’t work out. In the end, picking a Joe Mauer over Mark Prior is the better option…period.

Mark Prior had perfect mechanics. Remember? That’s what people said about Strasburg too. Well…you know what? There aren’t any perfect mechanics for pitching. It is an unnatural motion for the human body. The players who Prior, Van Popple, and Strasburg had been compared to (Seaver, Ryan, Clemens) have one significant difference…those all-time greats weren’t babied. They were brought up and worked hard and built up their arm strength in such a way that their bodies could handle doing this unnatural motion for years and decades.

It’s a different time now, though. And, in reality, hard work doesn’t always work either. Kerry Wood was a work horse and he broke down.

In the end, Strasburg is another in a long list now. Is he finished? Far from it. But now the Nationals will need to start over again...and it’s all because they picked Stephen Strasburg last year.