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Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Stephen Strasburg v. Aroldis Chapman

Whether fairly or not, these phenoms are going to be inextricably linked, at least for the next couple years, if not for the entirety of their careers.  For starters, both were born in 1988.  Both rose to notoriety more than a year before they signed major-league contracts: Chapman as an enigma in Cuba's bullpen during the '09 WBC and Strasburg as an absolutely unhittable Ace during his final two seasons playing for Tony Gwynn's team at San Diego State.

They ascended into the public consciousness for much the same reason.  They both are capable of not only touching triple digits on the radar gun, an ability that sends tingles down the spine of the most jaded baseball men, but appear to be able to live there for innings at a time on their best days.  Justin Verlander and Ubaldo Jimenez are the only starting pitchers currently in the major leagues who climb into that range even occasionally, and the ability to do it consistently was the exclusive territory of Joel Zumaya in 2009.

This ability to light up the radar gun, combined with the impression that both have excellent pitches with which to balance the dominating fastball, led both to enter unprecedented contractual territory.  The Nationals took Strasburg with the #1 pick in '09 and will pay him $15 Million over the next four seasons.  The biggest contract ever extended to an American amateur player.  A few months later Chapman set a new precedent for amateur internationals by signing a six-year, $30 Million deal with the Reds.

Naturally, as both have joined franchises who have almost nothing to show for the last decade, fans of the Reds and Nats are clamoring to see these wunderkinds pitch.  And so far this spring, neither has disappointed.  Chapman has yet to allow a run in two outings.  He's thrown four innings, struck out five, and allowed three hits and a walk.  He has, as promised, had several 100 MPH deliveries.  Strasburg, also, has not yet allowed a run, striking out four and walking one in five innings of work.

The immediate future, however, seems set in stone for Stephen Strasburg.  He will make one or two more starts before being optioned to the minor-leagues, where, depending on how he fairs, he will remain until at least June, so that the Nationals can set his arbitration clock back a year.  Although it's may be a disappointment to Washington fans, and baseball fans generally, it's a savvy move.

The Nats aren't going anywhere in 2010.  They play in a division which includes their league's reigning behemoth, the Phillies, as well as three other teams with aspirations of contending (whether realistic or not).  Two of Washington's most promising young pitchers, Jordan Zimmerman and Ross Detwiler, are out for at least the first half of the season, as is their promising young backstop, Jesus Flores.  The Nats know that Strasburg, so long as he stays healthy, will be part of their rotation for many years to come.  They aren't so sure about guys like Scott Olsen, Craig Stammen, J. D. Martin, and Garrett Mock.  Now is good time to see what those fellows can do.

On the other hand, the Cincinnati Reds have reason to believe that their time is now.  They went 27-13 down the stretch in 2009.  On paper at least, they match up fairly well with all three of the teams the finished ahead of them in 2009.  Their manager, Dusty Baker, is in the final year of his contract, at the beginning of which he promised to end Cincinnati's playoff drought, dating back to 1995.  If he wants to be rehired in 2011, he'll need to at least deliver the club's first winning season since 2000.

There is no tangential benefit to leaving Chapman behind at the start of the season, if he seems ready.  The other options for the rotation, Justin Lehr and Micah Owings, are veteran players who have had several seasons in the major-leagues already.  There is almost no chance they will be anything better than replacement-level starters.  Also, because of how Chapman's contract is structured, the Reds have already bought out most of his arbitration years, so their isn't any financial incentive to keeping him in the minor leagues for an extra couple months.  If they believe he's ready (and indications so far are that he is), he should be their fifth starter.    

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