When the Washington Nationals sent '09 no.1 overall pick Stephen Strasburg to Double-A Harrisburg to start his first professional season, he expressed some disappointment. The then-21-year-old right-hander had finished his junior year at San Diego State University with a (13-1) record, a 1.32 ERA, 195 K's (16.1 K/9) and just 19 walks (1.5 BB/9) in 15 starts and 109.0 IP. After that he went to the Arizona Fall League, where he was (4-1) in 5 GS and 19.0 IP, giving up 15 H, 10 R, 9 ER, three HR's and seven walks while recording 23 K's (10.89 K/9). In 9.0 Spring Training innings in 2010, Strasburg allowed eight hits, two runs, two earned, two HR's and a walk while striking out 12. When he was sent to Double-A Harrisburg to start the season, he told reporters, including the Washington Post's Adam Kilgore, that he was convinced he had a chance to make the Opening Day roster.
"'There's always that thought in my head,'" Strasburg said, "'Everybody is competing for a job here. I felt like I was included, but you know, it's all good. I'm going to go down... and learn what I need to learn and be ready to be called up, hopefully soon.'" Nats' GM Mike Rizzo told MLB.com's Bill Ladson at the time, as quoted in an article entitled, "Strasburg sent to Minor League camp", that sending both '09 1st Round picks, Strasburg and Drew Storen down to Double-A was, "'... for the benefit of their development. They needed some time to refine their tremendous skills.'" The speculation then, as it is with 2010 no.1 overall pick Bryce Harper, was that the delay in Strasburg's ascent was motivated more by the sort of financial and contractual concerns that every team deals with when developing exceptional young talents.
"Strasburg’s station based on dollars, not sense", was the title of Yahoo!Sports.com's Jeff Passan went with for an April 2010 article on the topic of Super Two status. "All that’s preventing Strasburg from pitching Sunday in the big leagues, as opposed to Altoona, Pa., is a clause in baseball’s collective-bargaining agreement," Mr. Passan wrote, a clause which, "... encouraged teams to keep their most talented players in the minor leagues simply to avoid paying them more in the long run." The Indians, Reds, Giants, Rays, Cubs and Marlins faced similar decisions the Yahoo!Sports.com writer explained. Washington Post writer Dave Sheinin speculated at the time, in an article entitled, "Why the timing of Strasburg's MLB debut is so important", about how much the Nats could save by delaying the date when Strasburg would reach the majors (as much as $18M in the future he suggested), and noted the significant service time (an extra year before he reaches free agency) and contract implications the decision held for the right-hander's future in D.C.
NatsInsider.com's Mark Zuckerman explored the same concerns in 19-year-old Bryce Harper's case, noting the new rules with the changes to the CBA, in an article this winter entitled, "Could new CBA delay Harper's debut?" He further broke down, better than anyone else I've seen, the possibilities in a follow-up post entitled, "Who decides if Harper makes club?" D.C. GM Mike Rizzo told ESPN980's The Sports Reporters in a recent interview that decision on Harper is, "... certainly not contract-based, it's not service-time based. It's going to be strictly based on the performance of the player and the development of the player and those are two distinct differentials."
An 18-year-old Harper, of course, wondered last year why it was unrealistic for him to think he could have made the club coming out of his first Spring Training. "'Why can't it be realistic? Why can't I come in here and think that I can make this team? I've exceeded expectations my whole life,'" Harper said to reporters, the Washington Post's Thomas Boswell among them. Davey Johnson wants Harper on the roster, and Rizzo's said he'll keep an open mind, and Harper, of course, still thinks he's ready.
In an article by MLB.com's Bill Ladson entitled, "Harper confident he can make club this spring", the top prospect in the organization and the no.2 prospect in baseball according to MLB.com, tells the Nats beat writer, "'I really feel I have a legit shot at making the club,'":
"'I've been working my butt off this offseason, getting ready to go out there and doing outfield stuff, working on running and jumping -- everything that consists of trying to make this team. To have Davey on my side, that a very big plus going in there.'"
Told about Harper's comments last Spring, the Nats' general manager told MLB Network Radio hosts Kevin Kennedy and Mike Ferrin, "'I'd be shocked if he said something other than that.'" Harper had a .343/.410/.629 line, three doubles, two triples and a home run in nine games in the AFL in 2010. He went to Spring Training with the Nationals in 2011, where he was 7 for 18 with 3 doubles in 13 games. A .318/.423/.554 line, 17 doubles, 14 HR's and 19 stolen bases in 72 games and 305 plate appearances at Class-A Hagerstown earned him a promotion to Double-A Harrisburg. A .256/.329/.395 line, seven doubles, three home runs and seven stolen bases in 37 games and 147 plate appearances left the left-handed hitting power bat with a .297/.392/.501 line in his first pro season.
HIs second AFL stint ended with a red-hot Harper hitting .333 with a .400 OBP, .634 SLG, six doubles, two triples, six HR's, 26 RBI's, 11 walks and 22 K's in 25 games and 93 at bats. What sort of Spring will Harper have to have to earn a spot in the Opening Day outfield? Is simply being better than the other options in camp enough, or does Harper have to be dominant to avoid a trip to Syracuse or possibly Harrisburg to start the season? And more importantly, when can we start talking and asking questions about 2011 no.1 overall pick Anthony Rendon's debut?