Despite his undeniable talent and potential - and apparently impeccable clubhouse demeanor - it appears to be a foregone conclusion that the Washington Nationals' prized pitching prospect Stephen Strasburg will begin the season in the minor leagues and remain there until late May.
Amid rampant speculation and rumors, Adam Kilgore details why the Nationals should delay Strasburg's major league debut. In addition to the developmental advantages of easing a 21 year-old pitcher with such towering expectations into professional baseball, the primary benefits the Nationals stand to gain are in the form of salary relief.
While Strasburg's contract includes a $7.5 million signing bonus and $7.6 million in total salary from 2009-2012, the Nationals can delay his arbitration eligibility for another year by ensuring that his major league service clock does not begin until mid-to-late May. (This would secure his status as a "zero-to-three" player and avoid a flirtation with "Super Two" standing. For an example of such a treatment, see the Baltimore Orioles' actions with regards to all-world catching prospect Matt Wieters.) By deterring salary arbitration for a year, the Nationals extend their rights over Strasburg through 2016 and guarantee that he receives compensation in accordance with his rookie contract during the 2012 season. If he performs anywhere near the lofty expectations that many hold for him, the Nationals would save approximately $10-15 million in salary during that one season.
In other news, the Nationals and Adam Dunn are nearing negotiations regarding a long-term contract for the 30 year-old first baseman. Dunn hit 38 homers last season, the first year since 2003 in which he finished with fewer than 40 round-trippers. That small decrease was negligible in light of the fact that he hit .267, 18 points higher than his career average.
Prior to last year I was very skeptical of Adam Dunn's value. A forty home run season is superb; however, his .249 career average and extremely high strikeout totals had me very worried. After his performance last year, I consider myself an Adam Dunn believer. On a team that was in the bottom third of the league in runs scored, Dunn's highest single-season batting average was a revelation. Moreover, Dunn increased his average without losing his power, still managing a stellar 38 home runs. With third baseman Ryan Zimmerman, the two form one of the most potent offensive tandems in the National League, if not all of baseball. Both Dunn and the Nationals' would be wise to continue what has proven to be a successful relationship.
In terms of their behavior towards Strasburg, the Nationals would be remiss if they did anything other than start Strasburg in the minors. While he may be the most talented pitcher in the organization, the future of this team is directly tied to his health and success, and it is far more important from a developmental standpoint to protect his arm and psyche in the minor leagues.
Furthermore, the economic factor will play a crucial role in the team's actions. Because the Nationals do not appear ready to compete for a playoff berth this season, the team must focus on the future. Although Strasburg could possibly contribute a few wins early in the season and generate fan interest, the benefits would be negated by his potential arbitration earnings in 2012. By sending Strasburg to the minors for the first few weeks of the season, the Nationals greatly increase their financial flexibility in 2012 and beyond and can use that money to improve the team at other, weaker positions.