Risky business: Strasburg no sure thing

Like Stephen Strasburg, Mark Prior and Kris Benson were projected as stars coming out of college. Getty Images

After much hype, the Washington Nationals will choose Stephen Strasburg with the first pick in next week's amateur draft. The question is: Should they?

Don't get me wrong. Strasburg's fastball reaches 100 mph, his curveball might be just as impressive, he struck out nearly two batters per inning at San Diego State (23 in one game) and almost everyone who has seen him says he's going to be a very, very special pitcher in the majors.

"You're talking about one of the best pitching prospects in a long, long time," longtime baseball executive Sandy Alderson said. "We won't push him unreasonably, but then again, we won't hesitate to have him around as soon as he's ready."

Whoops. My bad. Alderson didn't say that about Strasburg; he said it about Todd Van Poppel nearly two decades ago when he was Oakland's general manager. The Athletics drafted Van Poppel in 1990 and the kid was supposed to be baseball's next great starting pitcher. In fact, the Athletics supposedly pulled off what one writer said "may have been the greatest pitching draft in history" by picking Van Poppel, Don Peters, David Zancanaro and Kirk Dressendorfer. Baseball America put them on its cover and called them the "Four Aces." Well, it didn't quite work out that way. Van Poppel went 40-52 with a 5.58 ERA in his career, Dressendorfer pitched in only seven big league games, and the other two never even reached the majors.

OK, a lot can go wrong with high school pitchers. But unlike Van Poppel, Strasburg is a college pitcher, which changes the equation significantly. Here is what Reds special assistant Scott Nethery says about Strasburg: "Who knows how he'll end up, but instead of people trying to compare him to different pitchers, one day, people might be comparing everyone to him. Yeah, he's that good."

Oops, I did it again. Nethery said that about Mark Prior, not Strasburg. He was right, though. Prior was very, very good (18-6, 2.43 ERA in 2003, his first full season). Then he got hurt. And then got hurt again. And again. And now, it's been three years since he has pitched in the majors.

That's the thing about the draft hype surrounding Strasburg (and other top picks). He is unquestionably a great young pitching prospect. And who knows, maybe he'll wind up with a plaque on the walls of Cooperstown. But he could also simply wind up standing in the line at Cooperstown with the rest of us. Simply put, a lot can happen between the draft and the end of a career, much of it disappointing.

After all, it's hard enough deciding whether your daughter should go to the prom with some young man, let alone whether that same young man will justify a $10.5 million contract in five years.

Wait, did I say $10.5 million? That's the amount Prior received eight years ago. Strasburg's "advisor," Scott Boras, has floated talk of a $50 million contract along the lines of what Daisuke Matsuzaka received before the 2007 season. It's easy to see why, because the two share similar circumstances. Like Dice-K, Strasburg is a highly prized pitcher whose leverage is limited because he can negotiate only with one team but is not required to sign. He is also younger with better velocity. If Dice-K could get $50 million, then why not Strasburg?

That's some of the reasoning Boras will be using. (Along with the Jedi mind trick "This is the amount you want to offer.") The Nationals can counter that Japanese baseball is far superior to college baseball and a better barometer of major league success. Especially when compared to drafting pitchers.

Despite the endless hype and back-patting, the draft in any sport is a risk. But baseball's draft is especially risky when teams use high draft picks on pitchers. Since the draft began (in 1965) through 1998, 77 pitchers and 92 position players were chosen with the first five picks (Danny Goodwin was selected twice). Of those 77 pitchers, only 12 have won as many as 100 games. Which means roughly 15.6 percent of top picks became solid pitchers for a reasonable amount of time. Position players taken in the top five, meanwhile, have been more than twice as likely to be productive major leaguers (29 of 92, 31.5 percent). (For more details, see this chart.)

The odds are stacked against a No.1 pitcher's having a long and successful career. Of the 13 pitchers who have gone No. 1, Mike Moore won the most games, but he had a losing record (161-176) while Andy Benes (155-139), Tim Belcher (146-140), Floyd Bannister (133-146) and Kris Benson (61-74) are the best of the rest (it's far too early to know what David Price will do). Yes, some of those guys had good seasons, but none came close to turning around a franchise. Certainly, none compares to position-player No. 1 picks such as Alex Rodriguez, Chipper Jones, Ken Griffey Jr., Darryl Strawberry and Harold Baines.

No. 2 picks on pitchers have fared a little better (Josh Beckett, Justin Verlander, Mark Mulder, Bill Swift, J.R. Richard) but there are flops (Mike Lentz) and flameouts (Prior) as well. And it doesn't improve much as you go down the draft. Roughly half the pitchers chosen with the first five picks failed to win as many 20 games. I don't mean 20 games in a season. I mean 20 games in an entire career.

Why is that? Is it more difficult to scout pitchers, or do the waves from radar guns scramble a scout's brain?

"Number one, the rate of injury is a major factor, but I don't think anyone has an answer," Mariners general manager Jack Zduriencik said. "Pitchers have a tendency to get hurt. Whether they're 21-year-old college guys or 17-year-old high school kids, they get hurt. And pitchers get hurt at a greater rate than anyone. That's just pitching. And the catch is, you can't live without them."

No, you can't, which is why teams draft disproportionately more pitchers than position players (since 1999, 24 pitchers versus 26 hitters in the first five picks, see chart to the right). But it was one thing to expend a high first-round pick on a pitcher when such players still were relatively cheap to sign. When signing bonuses soared in the 1990s, a bad choice not only represented an opportunity lost but also carried a real economic cost. And if Boras represents the player, it can cost you time and aggravation, as well.

Imagine a root canal without Novocain that drags on for months and where the dentist takes frequent breaks to tell reporters that the whole problem is you don't floss enough and which only ends when you finally agree to pay him a staggering amount of money to let you leave the office.

People talk about Strasburg's being ready to step immediately into the starting rotation, but if Boras' history is any indication, the agent will hold him out until he gets the price he wants. That won't be $50 million, but it could be $20 million. As a college junior, Strasburg has until Aug. 15 to sign. If he doesn't sign, he would go back into the draft next year, and the process would start all over again.

With the history of top pitching picks, it might be wiser to avoid them all together in the first two rounds and concentrate your top picks on position players, who have a higher chance of paying off big in the early rounds, and use your later picks to select a quantity of pitchers. But given the odds against all first-rounders -- remember, only about one-third of the position players drafted in the top five went on to long, productive careers -- it's tempting not to invest much in them, either. Unfortunately, teams can't trade draft picks in baseball, so you have to choose someone.

And it's important to remember that the draft does produce talent, and the right picks can turn around a franchise, as the Rays and Brewers can attest (while Zduriencik was Milwaukee's scouting director, he drafted Prince Fielder, Rickie Weeks and Ryan Braun with top-10 picks). Conversely, multiple bad drafts in a row can leave a team stuck in quicksand, as has been the case with the Mariners.

If Strasburg is as good as described and if he doesn't get hurt and if he develops as projected, he will be a bargain at $20 million, a bargain at even more than that. In addition to his talent, one thing in his favor is the conservative way San Diego State coach Tony Gwynn used him, reducing the injury risk somewhat (pitching once a week, Strasburg pitched 109 innings; compare that to Kris Benson, who pitched 190 innings between college and the Olympics the year Pittsburgh drafted him No. 1 overall). I certainly hope the best for Strasburg. But based strictly on the history of top first-rounders, I would bet against his having the career the hype implies is inevitable. And if Strasburg goes the way of the majority of top picks, he'll be very expensive and the entire process may not seem worth it.

The Twins faced the same sort of question in 2001 when they had the first pick in the draft. Most people said Prior was the best player available, the sort of pitcher who could reach the majors very quickly and make an instant impact. That was true. Prior was in the majors a year later and helped pitch the Cubs to within five outs of their first World Series since 1945.

But Prior hasn't helped the Cubs much in the past five years, and his signing also came at a high cost. He received a record $10.5 million contract, an amount the budget-minded Twins decided would be too costly for them. So, weathering criticism that they were simply being cheap, they passed on Prior and picked a hometown position player instead.

With his two batting titles already, fans long ago stopped criticizing catcher Joe Mauer as a cheap pick.

Jim Caple is a senior writer for ESPN.com.