Stephen Strasburg was likely the most heralded young pitcher of the 21st century. But while he has shown flashes of brilliance and been quite productive when healthy, he hasn't quite taken over the game of baseball to the extent expected. Though he has mastered the very difficult arts of missing bats and minimizing free passes -- the planks upon which statistics like FIP are built -- he hasn't yet reached the upper boundary of his potential for one simple reason: When hitters make contact against him, an inordinate amount of damage tends to be done.
I was in my first season as special assistant to the GM with the Mariners in 2009, Strasburg's draft year. We had the second overall pick in that draft, thanks to the Mariners' sweeping their final series of the 2008 season, and happily selected Dustin Ackley with our pick. Obviously, the Mariners and every other club would have selected the same player -- Strasburg -- had they been picking first. In fact, if you would retroactively organize a draft of all draft-eligible prospects of this century, based on all available draft-day knowledge, I'm pretty confident that Strasburg would be the first player selected from that widened pool.
He had it all -- size, physical projection, two top-of-the-scale pitches in his fastball and curveball, a developing changeup and advanced control. Command within the zone came and went, but it certainly wasn't needed for him to mow down San Diego State's opponents throughout the season. Like the Indianapolis Colts did with both Peyton Manning and Andrew Luck, the Nationals had certainly picked the right season to possess the No. 1 overall pick.
Strasburg then dominated minor league hitters much as he had college bats. He lasted all of 94⅔ innings pitched in the minors, going 12-4, 2.38, with a 117/23 K/BB ratio. No sweat. And despite losing parts of the 2010 and 2011 seasons to Tommy John surgery, Strasburg has been far from a disappointment at the major league level, posting a 43-30 record and 3.02 ERA with a gaudy 746/166 K/BB ratio in 649⅓ IP.
Still, when you utilize a draft pick, you are essentially buying only the pre-free-agency years of a player's career. For anything afterward, you're paying full price. Here we are in the spring of 2015 and Strasburg is two years away from the free market, unless the Nationals shower him and Scott Boras with hundreds of millions of dollars beforehand. As it stands, while Strasburg has a stellar career 80 ERA- and 75 FIP-, he has completed all of one game in his career and has never finished above ninth in Cy Young voting. The bar might be unfairly high, but he hasn't reached the heights expected of him at this stage of his career.