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Thursday, May 13, 2010

Are the Nationals fooling anybody?

In the wake of Stephen Strasburg's latest round of dominance - he's allowed one lonely single in twelve innings at AAA - it may be time for the Nationals to reevaluate their course of action.  When Washington send him down at the beginning of the season, they insisted it has nothing to do with his arbitration clock.  They wanted him to develop his arm strength in low-pressure situations.  They wanted him to work on a third pitch, his changeup, which had been utterly irrelevant during his college career.  And they wanted him to increase the speed of his delivery in the stretch and work on holding runners.

At this point, however, one has to wonder whether there is any utility for Strasburg pitching in the minors.  Assuming he's throwing his changeup consistently - and the scouts say that he is - it must be working pretty well, because he's got 40 strikeouts in 34 innings.  Presumably, they aren't too worried about developing his arm strength any further, considering they're pulling him after six innings, even when he has a no-hitter going.  And it's damned hard for him to work on holding runners when he's only allowing about three per start.

Strasburg's given up only one extra-base hit (a double) and has a strikeout-to-walk ratio of better than 4-to-1.  I'm certainly not ready to argue that he'll immediately dominate the National League the way he's dominated the Eastern and International Leagues, but I just don't see how we can call what he's doing at AAA "development."  Pitchers "develop" by working out of jams, by responding to adversity, by facing hitters who are capable of beating them when they make even the slightest mistake, perhaps even when they don't.  None of those things are happening in Syracuse.

So, at this point, the only logical reason for Strasburg remaining in the minors is fiscal.  Don't get me wrong: that's a good reason!  The Nationals are not a probably not a contending team this season, despite their respectable record thusfar, and, learning from the Rays, Rangers, and Rockies, they are no doubt aware that team with their budget cannot make fly-by-night promotional decisions.  As soon as the Nationals are comfortable that Strasburg won't be making Super Two status, he'll be in the big leagues.  But for fans, both in Washington and across the country, that's really not soon enough.

What I see here is a problem that's going to need to be addressed at the next round of collective bargaining.  The Super Two rule was clearly put into effect in order to get more players to the arbitration earlier in their careers.  But one has to question at this point whether it is having that effect.  More and more teams delay the arrival of top prospects in order to get an extra four months of cheap labor.  Sure, the Cubs, who constantly throw money at their problems, can afford to promote Starlin Castro in May.  And the Rangers, seeing a division title very much in their grasps, are willing to bring Justin Smoak to the majors in April, future costs be damned.  In recent memory, however, there are a number of instances when a late promotion damaged a team's shot at contention.

For instance...

Last year Tommy Hanson, despite have a masterful spring, didn't make his major-league debut until June 7th, after which he went 11-4.  In the interim the Braves used Jo-Jo Reyes and Kris Medlen, who combined to go 1-4 in eight starts.  The Braves finished only six games back in the Wild Card.  Eight more starts from Tommy Hanson could've netted them how many more wins?

In 2007, the Brewers finished just two games back of the Cubs in the NL Central.  The eventual Rookie of the Year, Ryan Braun, has set the world on fire during Spring Training, but the Brewers sent him to AAA to "work on his defense."  On May 25th, however, Braun's defense was suddenly good enough to replace Tony Graffanino, who was doing his best Mario Mendoza impression, hitting .187 with 1 HR and a 494 OPS.  Braun hit 34 HR with a 1004 OPS the rest of the way.  How many more games would they have won with his iron glove in the lineup all year long?

Were there no Super Two, there is a strong chance Hanson and Braun would've been on major-league rosters straight out of spring training.  No doubt, whatever the rules, 90% of teams are going to prone to making decisions that are as much about the bottom line as about competition on the field.  Nothing is going to change that.  But I would like to see teams encouraged to put their best team on the field on Opening Day, rather than June 1st.  Again this season we are going to have a round of call-ups during the summer months that many fans are going to be aggravated by.

The Astros faithful have now been subjected to six weeks of J. R. Towles (554 OPS) and Humberto Quintero (597 OPS).  Meanwhile, Jason Castro hasn't exactly been dominating AAA (654 OPS), but he's got a lot more long-term potential than either of Houston's current backstops.  He will be the everyday catcher in the second-half, if not sooner.  Astros fans would no doubt like his tenure to begin yesterday.

Similarly, in Cleveland, Lou Marson and his 497 OPS are getting the majority of starts, while Carlos Santana absolutely massacres the International League (.315/.448/.528, 24 BB/21 K, 28 RBI in 32 G).  The Indians have a somewhat revitalized pitching staff, as Fausto Carmona, Justin Masterson, and Mitch Talbot have pitched very well, but they can't score runs (12th in the AL).  A powerful, patient switch-hitting catcher would be a very welcome addition to the lineup.  But, again, they'll have to wait.

And, of course, Strasburg and his 1.06 ERA are sitting at AAA while the 19-15 Nationals hand starts to guys like Craig Stammen, Matt Chico, and Garrett Mock.

It's time to see what these players can do, but we won't, not for another couple weeks.

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