On Tuesday, the Washington Nationals will almost certainly make San Diego State right-hander Stephen Strasburg the top overall pick of the 2009 First-Year Player Draft.
Going number one always means acute pressures and lofty expectations, but Strasburg has been ballyhooed to new extremes.
Some will say he's the greatest amateur pitcher they've ever seen. Baseball America, the venerable chronicler of all things amateur and minor-league, recently wondered aloud whether Strasburg was the greatest prospect of the draft era (i.e., 1965 and onward).
Almost all will agree that Strasburg, at a minimum, is the most off-the-charts draftee arm since Mark Prior. Strasburg boasts a fastball that exhausts the superlatives (one that sits in the high 90s, touches 101 on occasion, and has clocked in at 103 before), and he's also got the best breaking pitch in the draft — a low-80s hard curve with late, sharp, and devastating break.
The last time one hurler had, by acclamation, the best fastball and breaking ball in the draft? Tim Linceum in 2006. The only debate about Strasburg is which of his two signature pitches is more unhittable. Throw in his clean mechanics and ideal frame (6-foot-4, 220 pounds), and you've got the pitching equivalent of Michaelangelo's David — something close to perfection.
Strasburg rarely needed his changeup this past season, as he easily paced the NCAA in strikeouts, strikeout rate, and ERA, but it already grades out as an average to slightly above-average major-league pitch. And frankly, when you have Strasburg's power arsenal, you don't need much more than a show-me third pitch.
So it's his stuff — the best even some seasoned scouts have ever seen in an amateur — that sets him apart from the annual crop of hard throwers. Such are his gifts that Strasburg would've gone first overall last year had he been eligible.
One major-league director of scouting tells FOXSports.com that Strasburg is a No. 2 starting pitcher right now. "He's got one of the best curves I've ever seen at any level, and the fastball is just as great," he says. "He's a true franchise talent."
For all those reasons, Strasburg is going to shatter the record for draft bonuses. His agent, the powerful Scott Boras, has already floated a figure of $50 million.
That won't happen, but Strasburg will sign a major-league contract, and he will easily exceed the current record, $6.15 million by the Rays' Tim Beckham last year. Any guaranteed contract is an exercise in speculation, and there will be a great deal of moaning and hand-wringing over Strasburg's bonus, whether it's $15 million, $20 million, or something even higher.
It may be that the Nationals live to regret giving Strasburg a dime of their money, but the more likely scenario is that Strasburg — given his talent and readiness — winds up being worth more than what he signed for. There's no point in evaluating the dollars involved without the benefit of hindsight. Will he be worth it? The only sensible answer is: probably.
Of course, nothing defies lofty expectations quite like a young pitcher. As great as Strasburg is, he's still a young arm, and young arms, irrespective of gifts, can disappoint.
It can be injury, it can be the remorseless mind game that is pitching to the greatest hitters on earth, or it can be simple failure to adapt. Or it can be a little of everything.
There's nothing in Strasburg's dossier that suggests he's going to be the next legendary flameout, but the risk is always there. One thing in Strasburg's favor is that he's already accustomed to scrutiny.
His games have been on national television, he's been mobbed by scouts and media, and — unlike the hyped arms who preceded Strasburg — he's become an Internet phenomenon (more than 75,000 Google hits and almost one hundred YouTube videos). Certainly nothing compares to the major-league glare, but Strasburg has come closer to that experience than any other amateur.
One thing that could derail Strasburg's promise, however, is an overly aggressive promotion schedule. Since he'll sign a major-league contract, he'll be added to the 40-man roster immediately. Most scouts will tell you that Strasburg is major-league-ready right now, and that's led to speculation that Strasburg could make the rare leap from the draft directly to the bigs.
In all, 12 pitchers have jumped straight to the majors, including Burt Hooton and Jim Abbott and, most recently, Darren Dreifort and Ariel Prieto. You've got some good careers among those 12, but no one rises to the level of what's expected of Strasburg. Assuming the Nats draft Strasburg, there would be nothing to gain by promoting him to D.C. this season, save for a jump in ticket sales.
The Nationals aren't contenders, and considering the amount of money they're poised to invest in Strasburg a conservative approach is advisable. The hype and hoopla — the marketable hype and hoopla — will still be there in 2010.
Strasburg has everything you'd ever want in a pitcher, and genuine greatness figures to be in the offing. Heck, maybe it'll be Strasburg who, 20 years from now, becomes the next 300-game winner. Still, it's easy to find grim reminders of how hard it is to be a successful major-league pitcher.
The most we can say at this early juncture is that Strasburg is probably the greatest amateur pitcher of the modern era. While that's no guarantee of greatness, it's one hell of a head start.