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A Risky Choice

By Michael Wilbon
Thursday, June 11, 2009

ORLANDO

No way in the world I'd have taken Stephen Strasburg with the No. 1 pick in the draft. The risks are too great. The rewards are, historically speaking, nonexistent. And the price, from all indications, will be prohibitive.

I wouldn't draft a guy who's going to play every fifth day to improve my team's attendance. And I certainly wouldn't pin my hopes on the most fragile thing in baseball: the arm of a young pitcher.

The Washington Nationals, as we all can see, have a long shopping list.

Yes, they need pitching, but they also desperately need everyday players, lots of 'em. And they don't need to drop $50 million, or even $35 million on a college pitcher. This kid isn't, as agent Scott Boras would like us to believe, Daisuke Matsuzaka, who had distinguished himself as a professional in Japan before getting millions to come to the majors.

Strasburg isn't any different from any of the other 13 pitchers selected with the No. 1 overall pick in the draft since 1973, none of whom ever won a Cy Young Award or anchored a staff for six or eight years. Strasburg, right now, isn't any different from David Clyde, the phenomenon the Texas Rangers selected No. 1 in 1973. You think Strasburg's record of 13-1 and 1.32 ERA at San Diego State are impressive? They are, but not as impressive as Clyde's 18-0 record, which included 14 shutouts and five no-hitters, as a senior in high school.

The Rangers took Clyde that year; he finished his career with a record of 18-33 in the Bigs. And oh, Dave Winfield and Robin Yount were taken later in that draft. Oops.

Clyde wasn't some sad exception; he's the rule. Only two all-star seasons were produced by that group of 13 overall No. 1s. Surely you remember Ben McDonald of the Orioles (1989), another Boras client, who made six trips to the DL in nine seasons and had three rotator cuff surgeries before ending his career with a record of 78-70.

You can go down the list if you want. A guy named Matt Anderson, drafted No. 1 by the Tigers in 1997, threw 100-plus mph. He won 15 games, saved 22, and that was that. The Pirates drafted a kid named Bryan Bullington in 2002, and gave him a $4 million signing bonus. He's in Toronto's farm system, seven years later, and has yet to win a major league game. Do you really want me to go on with this?

Okay, one more. In 2001 the Minnesota Twins passed on the player who was the consensus "best player available" because they thought he would cost too much money. His name is Mark Prior. It looked for awhile like the Chicago Cubs were going to have Prior anchor their staff for a dozen years or more; that's how good he was in his second full season as a starter. Except Prior broke down and now has zero career, while the guy the Twins selected, catcher Joe Mauer, might now be the best player in baseball.

Granted, Mauer's from Minnesota. He was a local god and the Twins wanted him to be the face of their franchise. But Strasburg isn't from the D.C. area. There's no built-in love for him. His value to the Nationals, should they successfully sign him, would be entirely performance-based.

Occasionally, history should be ignored. But not this time. The common-sense evidence is too overwhelming. We have yet to know what's going to happen with the very promising David Price (Tampa Bay) who was chosen No. 1 in 2007 and Luke Hochevar, who was chosen first in 2006 and is pitching now for the Royals.

But pretty much, it's the same story up and down the list. Andy Benes (1988), Tim Belcher (1983), Mike Moore (1981) and Floyd Bannister (1976) were all guys you'd like to have. But they didn't cost, not even when salaries are adjusted for inflation, the equivalent of $50 million. And none was what you'd ever call "the ace" of a staff.

This notion that the Nationals needed to draft Strasburg as a show of faith to the team's fans is insultingly absurd. You know how you build and keep a loyal fan base? Put a credible product on the field. Be competitive year after year. Forget about the symbolism of drafting and signing the kid rated No. 1 and instead acquire the best players. How much could Strasburg affect attendance if he's pitching approximately 16 times at home?

Mike Rizzo, the Nationals' acting GM, was quoted as saying, "There was never a thought to taking another player."

Well, there should have been. But now that the Nationals have selected him they're saying that signing him won't be an issue, even though they couldn't sign last year's first-round pick, Aaron Crow.

Maybe the Nationals think Boras is bluffing. I don't, but maybe they do.

They've made so many mistakes as an organization it's insane to give them the benefit of the doubt in this. Had the Red Sox drafted Strasburg, I'd be less likely to think this had "bad move" written all over it because the Red Sox, of recent vintage anyway, make decisions that lead to first place while the Nationals mostly look like the Charlie Brown All-Stars.

And one kid pitcher, even one with a great arm, is unlikely to change that because there's so much that can go wrong with the kid's shoulder or elbow, with the contract negotiations. Maybe, putting on my optimist's hat for a moment, Strasburg will be the exception to all this. Maybe he'll trump history and be the first star major leaguer to be chosen first overall in the draft. Maybe. Hopefully. But it's a bet, especially at $50 million, I wouldn't be willing to wager.

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