(Stephen Strasburg photo by Associated Press)
It has become one of the standard Mariner draft laments, right up there with bypassing Tim Lincecum to take Brandon Morrow in 2006.
I’m talking, of course, about Seattle’s fateful three-game sweep of the Oakland A’s in the final three games of the 2008 season, allowing the Washington Nationals to edge past them for the worst record in baseball. That earned Washington the right to draft the phenom of phenoms, San Diego State pitcher Stephen Strasburg. Many Mariner fans have felt, strongly, that the M’s should have tanked those games to ensure they got Strasburg. They felt the Nats had the right idea by losing nine of their final 10 games to finish with 102 losses, while the Mariners’ final surge left them with 101 — a miserable season without even the reward of landing the best prospect of all time, as many were calling Strasburg.
That was the perspective at the time, anyway. In a strange circumstance, the Mariners manager at the end of 2008, Jim Riggleman, ended up being the Nationals manager when Strasburg arrived in the major leagues last year. Right before the 2009 draft, I called up Riggleman to get his recollections of the Mariners’ mindset in those final games. He told me that losing to get Strasburg never crossed anyone’s minds: “There were never any conversations about the No. 1 draft pick. It was understood, you just go out and try to win the games…There were a lot of things to play for. We had such a bad September, just to win a couple of games felt good. We weren’t really thinking in terms of the No. 1 pick. The feeling was if we’re picking one through five, we’re going to get an exceptional athlete. Although it does appear Strasburg kind of separates from the whole group more than in most years.”
Now, perhaps, it’s time for a perception change as the Mariners open a three-game series tonight against the Washington Nationals, with Strasburg nowhere to be found on the Nats’ active roster. Strasburg was indeed electric and dazzling when he came up last year, flashing his incredible 104-mph fastball through 12 starts, in which he struck out 92 in 68 innings. But then he came up with a sore elbow, which turned into Tommy John surgery. Now Strasburg is spending his time rehabbing his elbow, with an outside chance of pitching at the end of this season.
Meanwhile, the Mariners’ consolation prize with the No. 2 pick in 2009, Dustin Ackley of the University of North Carolina, has burst onto the scene with a highly impressive debut series in Seattle against the Phillies. With Ackley’s tangible presence in the lineup, and his skills on display, rather than being just a touted prospect in Tacoma, I’d suspect many Mariner fans are feeling a whole lot better about the 2009 draft at the moment. Ackley looks like he’s going to be a valuable player for many years to come, possibly a star, while Strasburg’s future is in doubt.
Strasburg, of course, could still be everything people thought he was going to be. Pitchers come back from Tommy John, sometimes better than before. But some pitchers are never the same after that operation, and Strasburg will have to alter his mechanics to assure that he doesn’t get hurt again. There’s no telling how that’s going to work out. I’m sure the Nationals are very happy to have Strasburg, as well they should be. The glimpse he gave last year showed that he has the potential to be the Roger Clemens of his generation. But he has to be healthy to do that.
It’s going to be fascinating to compare Strasburg and Ackley for the next decade or so