Strasburg Shines In Opener

Aztec ace shines at Urban Invitational

LOS ANGELES—As the 2009 Division I season opened this past weekend, scouts based in Southern California could exit any freeway off ramp at any time of day or night to observe a variety of future first-round draft picks.

Stephen Strasburg began the festivities on Friday. The junior righthander took the hill for San Diego State as the Aztecs opened their campaign with a game against Bethune-Cookman at MLB's Urban Youth Academy complex in Compton, Calif.  Strasburg is the consensus candidate to be the first pick in the June Draft, and his performance bolstered his already lofty ranking.

Forty scouts dutifully lined up outside the chain-link fence adjacent to the right-field bullpen to watch Strasburg warm up. None could be blamed for wishing that pre-1965 signing rules were still in effect. In those long ago days there was no draft, and each club had an equal opportunity (up to the limits of their owners bank account) to sign any player. C'est la vie.

If a scientist working in a lab with a computer and a batch of exotic chemicals sought to create a perfect pitching prospect, the result would resemble Strasburg.  Perfectly proportioned at 6-foot-5 and 220 pounds, he is gifted with broad shoulders, long arms and enormous hands, in which an enveloped baseball almost disappears. He has worked hard to sculpt his body since his high school days and the hard work shows up.

Once the game began, Strasburg did not disappoint. His first six fastballs  registered  98-99-98-98-99-98. Strasburg mixed in his wicked 81-82 mph slurve, which when coupled with his fastball can be described as blatantly unfair. To his credit, Strasburg maintains his stuff as a game proceeds, touching 97 and 98 in the fifth inning while maintaining his 81-82 breaking ball.

For scouts, Mark Prior remains the gold standard for college righthanded pitching prospects. Blessed with a perfect frame, excellent mechanics, pinpoint control and a phenomenal arm, Prior was the second selection in the 2001 draft, eventually signing with the Chicago Cubs for a major league contract that guaranteed him $10.5 million.

Comparisons between Strasburg and Prior are natural and inevitable. However, there are some subtle differences between the two. Both have ideal builds and once in a decade arms, but Prior's mechanics and command were noticeably more refined and polished at a similar stage.

For any pitcher at any level, command and mechanics are flip sides of the same coin. Prior's textbook mechanics gave him precise control. Strasburg's delivery fundamentals are not yet at a comparable level, and his command suffers as a result.
As two examples, Prior's arm slot was a high three-quarters; Strasburg's is three quarters to low three quarters, and varies more than did Prior's. Prior's finish was perfectly balanced. Strasburg will occasionally land on a stiff front leg and tumble to his left, or employ a quick hop at his delivery finish, a sign of a loss of balance.

Both possessed explosive high 90's fastballs, but their curves differ. Prior's breaking ball was more of a true curve, with distinct two-plane break and a diagonal tilt. Strasburg's hammer is more of a slurve, starting at a hitter's thighs, then swerving sharply down and sideways to shin level.  

San Diego State won the game, 6-3, with Strasburg earning the win. Strasburg had a high pitch total, falling behind several hitters while running up numerous three-ball counts. His pitching line was impressive, but perhaps does not fully reflect the moderate command problems he encountered: 5 2/3 IP, 3 H, 1 R, 1 BB, 1 HBP, and 11 SO.

On Saturday at Westwood, the leading candidate for the second overall pick in the 2011 draft, freshman righthander Gerritt Cole, strode to the mound for UCLA. (Las Vegas high school slugger Bryce Harper is the 2011 frontrunner.)

Cole brushed aside the Aggies in his six innings of work, allowing only one hit, one run, walking two and striking out seven. Cole's stuff was sensational. His fastball ranged from 94 to 97 mph, peaking at 98. In his first D-I start, Cole used his 81 mph change much more effectively than in high school, and his hard 85-88 mph slider is simply brutal (in a good way). Cole notched his first college victory as UCLA won, 5-2.

Scouts generally agree Cole's mechanics are showing steady improvement; however, some have voiced concerns regarding his maximum effort delivery. For that reason, big league organizations may be divided as to whether he profiles as a starter or a closer, but there is little doubt that Cole's pure arm strength is matched at the college level only by Strasburg.

Southern California shortstop Grant Green was in action on Sunday, as his Trojans battled Long Beach State at Dedeaux Field. Green had struggled in the first two games of the weekend series, going hitless in both contests. Early arrivals to the game noticed an elaborate tape job on Green's left hand, raising concerns of a possible hamate bone problem—perhaps similar to what Troy Tulowitzki suffered in his junior year. Not to worry. A chat with Green's dad revealed that the hand wrap is to protect his son's paw from painful blisters accumulated in BP.

The USC trainer worked on the Trojans star on the field prior to the game. Green was put through a series of severe stretching exercises which are probably banned under the Geneva conventions. Fit and resilient, Green leapt to his feet after the trainer was done and bounced into the dugout.

Once the game began, Green found the swing that had been missing most of the weekend. He had two hits in three at-bats, drove in one run, scored two and stole two bases as USC dropped a 5-4 decision to the Dirtbags. Green's first hit of the 2009 season was a line-drive home run, ripped into the netting beyond the left-field fence.

Speed (6.6 seconds over 60 yards) and defense are Green's primary assets. He seemed a bit tentative with his throws Sunday, bouncing one early toss and making a throwing error later on. Green's glove work, however, is spectacular. In all areas that defense encompasses—hands, range, arm, play-making ability—Green is darn close to being major league ready right now. He also shows the smoothness, fluidity and ease of actions emblematic of all outstanding defensive players.

Green had 10 assists in Sunday's game, and he made a string of excellent plays: ranging to his left, coming in, short-hopping the ball, making off-balance and on the run throws, etc. His almost balletic play at shortstop makes Green perhaps the defensive finest player in all of college baseball.  

The eye-opening weekend in D-I baseball reinforced Stephen Strasburg as the leading candidate to become the first overall selection in the 2009 draft. However, if Grant Green continues to field and hit as he did Sunday, Strasburg may encounter a whiff of competition for that top spot.