Tim Marchman
Friday May 15th, 2009

Stephen Strasburg of San Diego State is 20 years old with a fastball alleged to have reached 103 mph, a slider just as good and the skill to put them where he wants them. Probably no collegian has ever pitched as well. He's struck out more than half the batters he's faced this year. Watching footage of him you wonder where he would rank in various major league contenders' rotations; third in some, maybe higher in others.

For all that, the Washington Nationals, who have the first pick in the June 9 amateur draft, might be better off without him -- that is, if the rules permitted Washington to take a radical course of action: trade the top pick.

The Nationals will rightly draft Strasburg, and they'll probably pay a record sum to get his signature on a contract. He is a historic talent who could restore public interest in a wretched Nationals team by the end of this season, and the most common argument against him is weak tea, basically holding that since no pitcher taken first overall has ever made the Hall of Fame, he's not worth the absurd sum that agent Scott Boras will no doubt demand.

A slightly sounder case can be made that Strasburg is just too risky. However careful San Diego State coach Tony Gwynn has been with him, Strasburg is nearing the physiological limit of how hard a man can throw a baseball without tearing his arm up from the sheer force. He could be everything anyone ever wanted him to be and still be damaged goods before woeful Washington has any meaningful use for him.

This argument doesn't hold up, either; every young pitcher is a risk, whether it's because he lacks a pitch, or because he inherited his father's weak tendons, or because he doesn't really like baseball. By the logic that defines Strasburg as the sum of his potential failures, no team would ever draft any pitchers at all.

If there's no good reason for Washington not to draft Strasburg, though, there's still something to the idea that he may not be quite what they need. They're a strange, bad team, the worst in baseball even while scoring more than five runs per game, and no one pitcher is going to do more than make them a more interesting last-place club. They need time, and lots of pitching.

Strasburg's main attraction, though, is that he's so nearly ready for the Show, with pitches to rival anything even the most grizzled major league hitters have ever seen. One can imagine him filling Nationals Park with curiosity seekers while throwing shaky games in which he leaves in the fourth inning after frightening older players like Gary Sheffield; Washington would surely benefit from that, this year or next. Because Strasburg is so young, though, and because he throws so hard, and because arms burn out so easily, every pitch he throws is best regarded as bringing him that much closer to some sort of catastrophic injury.

Ideally, the best use of those pitches would involve making each of them count. And they could. Strasburg is prodigiously talented enough that he could be this year's version of the David Price of 2008 or the Francisco Rodriguez of 2002, a mysterious X-factor that changes the complexion of an entire playoff series. Given this, think about what some team with the money to meet Strasburg's price, the immediate need for him and the young talent to make it worth Washington's while to let him go might actually pay for him. What could the Nationals command from, say, the Boston Red Sox, who have young talent to spare and would strengthen their October prospects by adding Strasburg to their bullpen?

Enough, certainly, to make the Nats a better team in the long run. The right trade can set a team up for years: Think of the Cleveland Indians snaring Grady Sizemore, Cliff Lee and Brandon Phillips for Bartolo Colon, or the Minnesota Twins nabbing Joe Nathan and Francisco Liriano for A.J. Pierzynski. Add in the possibility of receiving draft picks in return, and of spending some of the money they wouldn't be spending on Strasburg on enticing a few top high school prospects to go professional, and you can imagine the flood of badly needed talent that Washington could get from such a deal.

A trade like this could sour, of course; in baseball you usually want a dollar bill rather than four quarters. But one can't forget that Strasburg is no sure thing in the long run, and that like such past prodigies as Dwight Gooden and Mark Prior, he may well enter the majors already at his peak and headed for a decline. Would Washington be better off with a pitcher such as Clay Buchholz, a hitter such as Lars Anderson and a stronger farm system than with Strasburg toiling away in fifth place? It's debatable, but it isn't a crazed proposition.

This would be the most basic sort of economic transaction: One party with a valuable but possibly depreciating asset trading it for assets of less immediate value more likely to appreciate with time. It could position Washington to run the table in the National League East in the near future; it could mean a pennant or two or many to a team willing to take a calculated risk. And under the rules, it can't happen.

Baseball is a moralistic sport, one that promotes free competition for talent but guards against the prospect of one team becoming too rich or too powerful with several vacuous hedges, the worst of which amount in essence to protecting teams from themselves. No matter how much it's in their self-interest to do so, a team can't sell or buy a player with more than a relatively token sum of money involved, and unlike the other major team sports it can't trade or sell draft picks. The nominal purpose of this is to ensure that the weakest teams get the best talent; in practice it's more about keeping the best teams from getting it, and thus about preventing an efficient spread of talent throughout the game.

The Nationals should by all means be able to draft and keep Stephen Strasburg, if they judge the risk worth taking. Lousy teams aren't unworthy of premier players; rich ones don't deserve them by right. That Washington is prevented from following on a rational line of argument, though, and that other teams won't even have the chance to make the kinds of offers that built the Dallas Cowboys and ruined the New York Knicks, is a small disgrace. And it would be a somewhat larger one if Strasburg, at the peak of his powers, were kept from baseball's grandest stage by nothing other than a vague fear of a caste system, in a day when the Tampa Bay Rays and Milwaukee Brewers have an easier time making the playoffs than the New York Mets. The first overall pick is an asset, for the team in baseball that needs it most. That team should be allowed to maximize that asset.

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