The temptation was certainly enticing enough, but the Washington Nationals did the right thing by opting to reassign pitching phenom Steven Strasburg to their AA team to start the season. After spending $15.1 million to sign him, and watching him pitch 9 solid innings this spring posting a 2.00 ERA, there was certainly pressure, if from no one other than their fan base, for the Nationals to allow their young flame thrower to start the season in their big league rotation. Fortunately the wisdom of their experienced front office stepped forth, and made the best decision for Strasburg, the organization, and baseball.
Sure, there will some who cry foul, suspecting that this was only a move to save money down the road by delaying the start of his service time clock, and count down to arbitration and free agency. Clearly, having the contract rights of a possible super star for an extra year is motivation to play games with the start of a player’s career, but in this case I believe it’s only a potential by-product of a solid baseball decision.
Here’s why I see the Nats move as prudent:
- It allows Strasberg to adjust to the professional baseball lifestyle: As talented as Steven is, there are just realities in the differences between college life and the pro world. First, there is the increased workload pitching every fifth day, instead of once a week, which will be physically and mentally more challenging. Second, the travel is more demanding. Third, being away from home, and living on your own can cause distractions for guys. Yes he went to college, but SDSU was in his hometown, so being far away from family and friends may be an adjustment, as it is for many players. Finally, just the fact that your career is now on the line and in your hands is an adjustment that not every guy handles the same.
- It still allows him to face tougher competition than he’s previously scene: AA is where some of the lesser talent is weeded out, and it becomes more important to learn baseball savvy instead of raw athletic ability. Don’t get me wrong, his electric stuff should still dominate at that level, but it’s a reasonable step up in terms of quality and depth of lineups from what he generally faced in the Mountain West Conference.
- It gives him a safe place to fail: Again, I expect his stuff to overpower hitters at AA, AAA, and even the big leagues when he is on, but there will be nights when he gets his ears pinned back. Everyone who stands on the mound has them. It is a lot easier to have those humbling experiences in the minors for the first time, rather than take your first ass kicking on the national stage, where expectations are unrealistic, and results are sensationalized both good and bad.
I’ve seen players who shoot to the big leagues having never hit a stumbling block along the way, only to hit that inevitable first obstacle in the most unforgiving arena of the big leagues, and never recovering from the blow. There is some emotional and psychological toughening that usually can only be built up over time, and I hope Stephen has that toughness in place when he needs it.
- It gives him the stripes of respect that almost every other player has had to earn to get to the show: I know it sounds silly, but I believe there is something unique that bonds all major league players, regardless of their cultural, socio-economic, religious, or racial backgrounds, and that is the commonality of having survived the meat grinder of the minor leagues, to be recognized as one of the best players in the world.
I’ve seen guys who were perceived to have been given favored treatment, or allowed to skirt certain rights of passage through the chicanery of their agents, who were treated differently and aloofly by their teammates. Strasburg is uniquely gifted, and guys understand that, but when he does finally get called up it will be with the credentials and respect of having proved it at the lower levels first, like everyone else.
- It covers the organization from any second guessing: If he was rushed to the big leagues without any minor league seasoning and failed, the Nats would be chastised forever as the organization that ruined the greatest pitching prospect of our generation, and maybe of all time.
Now, the reasons the Nationals gave for the reassignment were curious at best – he needs to work on SLOWING DOWN his delivery out of the stretch, and his delivery is violent? I can honestly say that in my 27 years of being around pro ball not once have I heard a pitching coach tell a guy that he needed to slow done his stretch delivery. They could have easily said, “He’s being given a chance to get acclimated to the rigors and changes that come with playing professional baseball for the first time.” But hey, the organization can say whatever it wants. The decision was still sound.
I’m glad Strasburg went in the draft to the team that needed him the most. I’m glad he was rewarded for his talent. I’m glad the Nationals have shown the restraint to handle him with an approach that focuses on what is best for the player, not for their immediate ticket sales. I’m glad he will be given the chance to succeed, and maybe stumble, in an arena where both the lessons of success and failure can be learned without the bombastic sensationalism of the national media. I’m glad he will earn his stripes as he joins the brotherhood of major league players. I’m glad that his path to superstardom, so far, appears to be being paved with some sensibility, which will hopefully allow him to successfully and fully launch into the exciting and fulfilling career that we all are wishing for him, and for the game.
Good luck, Stephen, there are a lot of fans in San Diego, and now Washington that are excited to see your career continue to unfold!