Can't-miss pitchers often miss
Have you heard the news? Another can't-miss pitching prospect is out there. How can't-miss is he? Peter Gammons reports that San Diego State's Stephen Strasburg -- whom agent Scott Boras represents -- might command $50 million in the summer, a figure that of course would obliterate the salary record for an amateur pitcher.
Predictably, there already has been some backlash; in this case, from Nationals president Stan Kasten, who said "silly media hype" surrounds Strasburg. Perhaps, but it's not often when a college pitcher averages roughly 20 strikeouts per nine innings. In fact, it's probably never.
Still, before we measure Strasburg's head for his Hall of Fame plaque, it's probably worth reviewing a selective history of other can't-miss pitchers.
Branch Rickey, shortly after taking over as general manager of the Pirates in 1950, wrote this of "bonus baby" Paul Pettit, who had signed for the earth-shattering sum of $100,000. "He could be an embryonic neurotic," Rickey observed. "Complains a great deal. Ailing so frequently -- fearful all the time lest, for example, his elbow will get sore 'again.'"
Well, Pettit was fearful for a reason: He had arm problems. Many years later, he told author Brent Kelley, "I think that I started having twinges of a bad arm when I pitched in a tournament in high school. I contracted a sore arm right away [after joining Double-A New Orleans for his first professional season], and I wound up pitching with a bad arm all year."
Pettit pitched well in the minors in 1952 and '53 -- and in '53 he recorded his sole win in the majors -- but in 1954 he couldn't pitch at all and switched to playing outfield and (eventually) first base. Turns out he was a pretty good minor league hitter.
Two decades later, David Clyde was supposed to be a can't-miss guy, too. In the spring of 1973, pitching for Westchester High School in suburban Houston, Clyde went 18-0 with five no-hitters. Everybody loved him, and the Rangers grabbed Clyde with the No. 1 overall pick in the June draft. (The next three picks were John Stearns and Hall of Famers Robin Yount and Dave Winfield.) Clyde would sign only if the Rangers would agree to let him begin his career with two starts for the big club.
The big club agreed, and nearly 37,000 fans showed up to see Clyde's major league debut. Despite walking seven Twins in five innings, Clyde earned the victory. He pitched even better in his next start (in Chicago), and the original plan to send him to the minors after two starts went hurtling out the window. Clyde was 18 years old. He wasn't ready, but he spent the rest of that season and all of the next one in the majors, mostly as a gate attraction. Finally, in 1975 he headed to the minors and pitched reasonably well. But in 1976, he hurt his shoulder. Next, a trade to the Indians, a decent season, a bout of alcoholism and (not coincidentally) gastritis, a back injury and another shoulder surgery. Clyde won his last game in the majors in 1979. He was 24.
Floyd Bannister was a completely different case altogether. Not a raw high schooler, Bannister led the NCAA in strikeouts as both a sophomore and a junior at Arizona State, the nation's top college program at the time. The Astros grabbed him with the No. 1 overall pick in 1976. He spent only seven games in the minors before joining the big club and did not pitch in the minors again. Bannister won 134 games, but only 11 of his wins came with the Astros; after two disappointing seasons, Houston traded him to Seattle for shortstop Craig Reynolds. Bannister also lost 143 games and totaled one All-Star Game inning in 15 seasons.
There certainly wasn't any denying Ben McDonald's talent. Not before the Orioles drafted him out of Louisiana State with the overall No. 1 pick in 1989, nor after. In 1990, when he was still just 22, McDonald pitched a shutout in his first major league start and finished that season 8-5 with a 2.43 ERA. Later, from ages 25 through 29, McDonald's ERA was significantly better than league average in each season. But he just couldn't stay healthy. McDonald started more than 24 games in a season only three times and never won more than 14 games in one season. And at 29, he was forced to retire with a ravaged rotator cuff.
In 1990, everybody wanted a high school pitcher from Arlington, Texas, named Todd Van Poppel. The Braves had the first pick in the draft that summer but were scared off by Van Poppel's agent, a young man named Scott Boras. Instead, the Braves selected a high school shortstop named Larry "Chipper" Jones. The next 12 teams were scared off by Boras, too. Finally, the world champion Oakland Athletics -- drafting 14th because they had "lost" free agent Dave Parker to the Brewers -- selected Van Poppel and signed him for $1.2 million (which was considered a great deal of money in 1990).
Just one year after the A's drafted Van Poppel, the Yankees, having finished 67-95 in 1990, had the first pick in the draft and used it to select a high school left-hander named Brien Taylor. They offered him $350,000 to sign. Taylor, his agent (Boras) and his mom (Bettie) scoffed. Finally, just hours before he was scheduled to start classes in junior college, Taylor signed with the Yankees for $1.55 million, wiping out the old bonus record.
For two years, that $1.55 million looked like a bargain. In his first two professional seasons, Taylor struck out 337 batters in 324 innings. He threw a 98 mph fastball. But then everything stopped. In the winter after his second season, Taylor got into a fight and fell on his valuable left shoulder. Following surgery, Taylor spent six or seven seasons trying to get back to where he was, but he was forever unable to throw the ball anywhere near the strike zone.
And finally, most recently there was Mark Prior. Eight years ago, "Some scouts considered Prior the best college pitcher of all time" (according to Baseball America). In his junior season at USC, Prior went 15-1 with a 1.70 ERA and struck out 202 batters in 138 innings (while walking only 18). The Twins had the first pick in the draft that summer, determined they couldn't afford to sign Prior and drafted local hero Joe Mauer instead. The Cubs had the second pick and did draft Prior, eventually signing him to a five-year contract worth $10.5 million (a record).
Did Prior miss? After only nine minor league starts in 2002, Prior debuted in the majors and was immediately brilliant. As a rookie, he struck out 147 major leaguers in 117 innings; in his first full season with the Cubs, he won 18 games.
So Prior was well worth that $10.5 million, right? Perhaps. But since winning those 18 games in 2003 -- six long years ago -- Prior has won exactly 18 more games. At this moment, it's not clear he'll ever win another.
$50 million? If Stephen Strasburg can't miss, he's worth $50 million. Maybe more. If he can jump straight to the majors and dominate for five or six years, he's worth it.
Strasburg can miss, though. Anyone can.
Rob Neyer is a senior writer for ESPN.com and regularly updates his blog. You can reach him via firstname.lastname@example.org.