The $15 million man

The deadline was Monday at midnight. At 11:58 and 43 seconds, Stephen Strasburg–who is supposedly the best pitching prospect in a generation–agreed to sign with the Washington Nationals. The last place team signed the number one draft pick for $15.1 million for four years, plus incentives, which was half again as much as the previously biggest contract for a draftee. I blogged about Strasburg’s pitching prowess earlier.

Nationals fans now have something to feel good about and someone to get their hopes up. Do you think this is a good way to spend that kind of money?

The mysterious Marlins

The Florida Marlins have won two World Series in their brief 17-year life span. But they have baseball’s lowest attendance figures and lowest payroll. Their strategy is whenever they get a good player to get rid of him to save money. And yet, no matter what they do, they keep winning. The latest cut-rate team is just three games behind the division-leading Phillies. Read this account and be encouraged that you really can do a lot with a little.

Taken out to the ball game

For Father’s Day, I got taken out to a Washington Nationals’ game.

The Nationals are one of the league leaders in run scored and batting average. Their first three batters are hitting over .300, and the cleanup hitter is one of the leading home run hitters. And yet, the Nationals have the worst record in baseball. How is that possible? The team has no defense, leading everybody in errors but also failing to catch balls that average fielders would catch but that get scored as hits, and tossing slow throws that yield safe calls. Also, the team has no bull pen. The starting pitchers are pretty much all rookies; considering everything, they are doing remarkably well, though they can’t go too deep in a ball game. When the bullpen takes over, no lead is safe. Time after time during the season, the Nationals get a big lead early on, and then fritter away the game in the late innings. So the team is kind of interesting to watch. There is usually a lot of scoring, the thrill of anticipated victory, the agony of defeat.

Sunday’s game was par for the course, except the team started with a 4 run deficit to the Toronto Blue Jays after the top of the first inning. This being my first visit, I enjoyed the new stadium. It’s very open and simple, without the razz-a-ma-tazz of other new stadiums I’ve seen, such as Miller Park with its retractable dome. The Nationals Stadium is rather old school. It was easy access via Metro. It was good to get back to watching games again. A good time was had by all.

Calling his pitches

Stephen Strasburg is the 19-year-old pitching prodigy from San Diego State who looks to be the number one draft choice. The Washington Nationals were so horrible last year that they ended up with the first pick, so the Washington Post published a story about him. The whole thing is worth reading and will whet your appetite for the upcoming baseball season. (Spring training begins next Saturday!) The story focuses on how Strasburg had 23 strikeouts against the biggest hitting team in the conference. 23! Only 4 outs were by some other means. Here we get some of his commentary when he watched the DVD of his exploit for the first time:

Given a chance to revisit that game — last week, Strasburg watched the DVD for the first time — Strasburg processed the action not as something extraordinary, but rather, as an explicable sequence of strategy. Even 10 months removed, Strasburg remembered almost every pitch, and in the details there was no vision of a tall tale.

“Okay, this is [Jesse] Shriner,” Strasburg, sitting on a stool in the players’ lounge, said while watching an at-bat with Utah’s catcher. “My freshman year, he ended up getting a game-winning single off me. I blew a save in the ninth inning because of this guy. So I was a little geared up for him. He’s one of those guys where, typically, he’ll just look for a fastball away and guide it. He’s not trying to pull anything. This at-bat here, I go fastball in. Then I get him up and in, swinging. That was the pitch I got him with all game.”

As Strasburg watched the game’s final innings, he noticed how the nuances aligned just so. Baseball is a game of guessing, and guessing right is its science. With two outs and two aboard in the sixth, a right-handed batter for Utah swung way too late on a one-strike fastball, fouling it off toward the first base bleachers. Strasburg debated his next pitch. The previous foul indicated that the batter would need to start his swing earlier; he’d need to cheat. The previous foul also suggested, at least to most, that Strasburg should dial up another fastball.

“But see, he was thinking I’d double up,” Strasburg said. “So now I’m thinking right here, I can strike him out with a slider.”

He did just that. . . .

On the flat-screen television in front of Strasburg, the sun dipped. The final outs fell. Strasburg offered commentary about why he never throws his change-up in college games (it’s the only pitch slow enough for them to hit) and about why most batters try to swing at the first pitch they see from him. (“Typically deeper in the count they don’t stand a chance, to be honest,” he said.)

“Right here, this is the last pitch” of the game, he said. “This one I was pretty much giving it everything I had left. You can see. One sign from the catcher. I’m bringing it.”

The pitch was high and outside, pure smoke, swing and a miss. Strasburg’s catcher leapt, pumped his fist and ran toward the diamond. Strasburg jumped off the pitcher’s mound, but then just strode toward his catcher for a handshake. Soon, teammates and coaches were mobbing him, hugging him, rubbing his head. Strasburg, face still clenched, seemed less like a part of the celebration than an object within it. A rag doll, numb.

“I don’t even remember what I was thinking here at all,” Strasburg, watching, recalled of that moment.

Unemployed Superstars

Unemployment is rough for auto workers, mid-level managers, and retailers. Also superstar baseball players in their free-agent year. Not only has the bottom fallen out of the housing market. It’s also fallen out of the baseball free agent market. Consider:

If Major League Baseball called you today and offered the rights to a new expansion team, with the freedom to build your roster from the list of free agents still available at this astonishingly late date, you could construct a lineup with potential future Hall of Famers at catcher (Iván Rodríguez), both corner outfield positions (Manny Ramírez and Ken Griffey Jr.) and designated hitter (Frank Thomas).

As your cleanup hitter, you could have the only player in baseball with 40 or more homers in each of the past five seasons (Adam Dunn). Your second baseman could be a player less than two years removed from an all-star/Gold Glove season (Orlando Hudson). And your starting rotation could include two more Hall of Famers (Pedro Martínez and Tom Glavine), plus the National League’s starter in last year’s All-Star Game (Ben Sheets).

Less than two weeks away from the opening of spring training camps, baseball’s talent marketplace is facing a staggering reality: More than 90 free agents remain unsigned, and many of them simply won’t have jobs when pitchers and catchers report, if they find jobs at all.

Brewer becomes a Yankee

Well, the Brewers’ rent-a-super-pitcher C. C. Sabathia was snapped up by the New York Yankees with a
$161 million, seven-year contract. One of my students at Concordia in Mequon wrote an essay complaining about how baseball players make millions of dollars, while teachers make so little. I made the useful comment that very few teachers can either hit or throw a curveball so why would anyone pay them millions of dollars?