Monday, June 7, 2010
By Jarrad Saffren
Blogger's Note: The following entry is the 3rd in a season long series that will run every two weeks on a consistent Monday basis. After reading, be sure to become a "Chin Music" follower by clicking the "follow" link next to the title of this entry. Remember to post your comments at the bottom.
Ever since Major League Baseball restructured into it’s current six division format in 1994, the natural pecking order of the National League East has played out like a predictable Hollywood blockbuster: while two perennial title contenders have maintained separate runs at the top, the remaining three teams have been type-cast like one-dimensional movie stars. Spearheaded by their legendary, Hall of Fame-studded pitching staff, the Braves established a new high water mark for consistency by winning 11 consecutive National League East titles from 1995 to 2005. After a brief cameo by the Mets in 2006, the Phillies, spearheaded by the most powerful National League lineup since the “Big Red Machine,” have knocked the Braves off their long-standing perch. In spite of their combined total of 14 first place finishes in the last 15 seasons, the Braves and Phillies have failed to finish first in the most important category: World Series championships. That distinction belongs to the Marlins, who capitalized on a pair of spur of the moment championship tidal waves in 1997 and 2003. With two world championships and zero 1st place finishes, the Marlins are like the pesky little brother who always seems to hang around the big boy table long after his mother began pestering him to go to sleep. Every once in awhile (1997 and 2003), he pulls an all-nighter. The Mets, on the other hand, are supposed to hold court at the big boy table. Every spring, their paper roster gives off the mirage that they’re championship contenders. But from Mo Vaughn to Roberto Alomar to Bobby Bonilla, only the “Brangelina” family has made more perplexing free agent additions than the Mets. Which is why, every fall, they’re left to ponder their seemingly eternal second class status (both in their division and their home state).
Amongst the chaotic consistency of the modern day National League East, perhaps nothing has been more of a slam-dunk than the dormant status of the franchise formerly known as the Montreal Expos. Forget the wild card era for a second. The Expos entered the majors in the inaugural season of the division play era (1969). During their tenure in Montreal (from 1969-2004), in spite of the consistent wave of talent produced by their farm system (Gary Carter, Andre Dawson, Pedro Martinez, Randy Johnson, Moises Alou, etc.), the Expos made a grand total of one playoff appearance…in the strike-interrupted 1981 campaign. The city of Washington hasn’t fared much better. After the retirement of legendary power pitcher Walter Johnson in 1927, the Washington Senators were known more for a capitalistic pun, “first in war, first in peace, and last in the American League,” than their exploits on the diamond. By 1961, they had skipped town to become the Minnesota Twins. Since moving to Washington and becoming the Nationals in 2005, the former Expos franchise has yet to even post a winning season. When you put both tenures together, the Expos/Nationals franchise has exactly ½ of a division title* (see “1981” at the bottom) in 40 years of existence. Only the ancient Israelites can match such a dry spell. Yet, after 40 years of wandering in the dessert, it appears the Nationals (and Washington baseball) may finally be in the fetal stages of reaching their promised land.
If the post-modern NL East is a predictable Hollywood blockbuster, than the emotional core of our American sporting cycle is a classic superhero movie. With every puffy-chested protagonist, there’s an antagonistic foil waiting to burn down his city while purging its helpless natives. Based on the communal ambiance that surrounds these sporting conflicts, any athlete is capable of holding down both roles at the same time. Such a conflict reaches its historical peak when it’s carried out by a pair of transcendent superstars. You’ve seen this movie before. Two colorful, world-beating athletes, each of whom could stake a claim as their respective sport’s pre-eminent meal ticket, jostle for that elusive “king of the hill” status. Bill Russell had Wilt Chamberlain. Magic Johnson had Larry Bird. Roger Federer has Rafael Nadal. Sidney Crosby has Alex Ovechkin. But let’s reverse the psychology for a moment and imagine the possibilities if they were to team up. What if the height-challenged (by modern standards) 50’s and 60’s basketball players were forced to drive the lane against the 6’10 Russell and the 7’1 Chamberlain? What if Magic could have added a new dimension to his fast break by whipping a corner pass to Bird for a momentum-turning three? What if Nadal could use his famously wide left-handed kick-serve to set up Federer for a statement volley? What if Crosby, the NHL’s most spectacular passer since Wayne Gretzky, could feed Ovechkin, the league’s most spectacular goal-scorer since Pavel Bure, on his right wing? If you’re the Washington Nationals, these jubilant fantasies suddenly represent a potentially budding reality. At the beginning of this week, in back to back days, the Nationals will be blinded by the apocalyptic, tide-turning glow that is their future. On Monday, they used their number one overall draft pick to select catcher Bryce Harper, the most hyped position prodigy since Ken Griffey Jr. Today, they will culminate a year’s worth of hype-crazy anticipation by starting Steven Strasburg, the greatest pitching prospect of all-time and last year’s number one overall draft choice. Never before in the history of sports has a franchise struck such prodigious amateur gold in back to back years. “The Nationals could be getting two 50 year players back to back,” says their agent, Scott Boras. In his final two seasons at San Diego State, Strasburg went 21-4 with a 1.44 ERA while recording 122 more strikeouts than innings pitched (328-206). After signing for a rookie record contract of 15.1 million dollars, his minor league career has developed into a highly publicized, yet destined to be short-lived tour de force. Pitching before record crowds and ESPN cameras, Strasburg’s dominance (7-2, 1.30 ERA) has sparked a sudden wave of interest in the future of Nationals baseball. When a rumor spread that he would make his major league debut on June 4th, tickets for the game were sold out in less than 10 minutes on the team’s website. His fastball has been clocked at 102 miles per hour. His changeup is considered on par with two-time CY Young winner Tim Lincecum. As a late-blooming four year college player, Strasburg, who told scouts not to draft him out of high school because he didn’t even think he was ready, is now the most major league-ready prospect in the history of the game. Former outspoken major league pitcher and current “Baseball Tonight” analyst Curt Schilling said that Strasburg “could very well be the best pitcher in the major leagues from the day he makes his first start.” Bryce Harper, on the other hand, was ready for the show before he even hit puberty. A 17 year old with a Ruthian power bat and a Pudge-like throwing arm, Harper’s now legendary prep career has become a product of public infatuation. As a 12 year old, while playing in a travel tournament on an Alabama field with 250 foot fences (about 50 feet longer than the traditional fences a 12 year old would play on), Harper hit 11 home runs in 12 at bats. As a 16 year old high school sophomore, while playing in an International Power Showcase normally reserved for juniors and seniors, Harper hit the longest home run (502 feet) in the history of Tropicana Field. In addition to his otherworldly power bat, Harper’s fastball has been consistently clocked at 96 and 97 miles per hour. Immediately after becoming the first high school sophomore to be named a 1st team all-American by Baseball America, Harper was featured in a June 2009 Sports Illustrated cover story that dubbed him the “Lebron James of baseball.” After two scintillating seasons at Las Vegas High School, Harper became bored at the idea of spending two more seasons facing cream-puff high school fastballs. Now, after obtaining his GED from the College of Southern Nevada (where he hit 29 home runs in 62 games) in December of 2009, Harper can enter the 2010 MLB draft during what would have been the conclusion of his junior year of high school.
Under a baseball dynamic, due to the multitude of intangible factors that can define a 162 game season, it’s virtually impossible for two superstars to consistently carry a team to a championship. If there’s a cautionary tale for the Nationals to steer away from, it’s the story of the mid to late 90’s Seattle Mariners and their intangible contrast with the dominant franchise of their era: the Yankees. Within a five year span, the Mariners drafted Ken Griffey Jr. and Alex Rodriguez, the two most hyped amateur position players in baseball history up to that point, with separate number one overall draft choices. When you add Randy Johnson, Edgar Martinez, Jay Buhner, and Jamie Moyer to the mix, the Mariners featured three future first ballot Hall of Famers (Griffey, A-Rod, and Johnson), one fringe Hall of Famer (Martinez, a career DH, would be a lock if he had played the field), a three time 40 plus home run hitter (Buhner), and one of the most consistent finesse pitchers in recent memory (Moyer). While all these players carried out their potential to the fullest extent, the Mariners won just one playoff series during their tenure as franchise cornerstones. Although they looked dominant on paper, the Mariners front office could never seem to plug the gaping bullpen holes that always seemed to sink their post-season ship. The Yankees, on the other hand, combined their deep, albeit not quite as spectacular lineup and rotation with a world-beating bullpen that always seemed to dash any faint sense of hope for an opposing comeback. They were built for the post-season. Seattle was better-suited for a video game.
Once they both reach the majors, unless Harper suffers a Josh Hamilton-like meltdown and Strasburg is the second coming of Todd Van Poppel, the Nationals will instantly elevate themselves to playoff-contender status. Once both players reach the peak of their talents, in order for the Nationals to capitalize on their dynastic potential, their front office must combine their Seattle-like headliners with a Yankee-like intangible dynamic. With an underrated core of everyday position players like incumbent superstar Ryan Zimmerman, speedy centerfielder Nyjer Morgan, and power hitting 1st baseman Adam Dunn, they’re off to a better start than it may appear. In addition to choosing their ace of the future in Strasburg with the first overall pick in last year’s draft, the Nationals nabbed their closer of the future, former Stanford fireballer and Indiana high school pitching legend Drew Storen, with the 10th overall pick. When you combine this budding flower bed of talent with a freshly minted infant stadium and a renewed sense of fan interest, the future of Washington baseball is the brightest it’s been since Walter Johnson was headlining their starting rotation. Playing in a major market, the Nationals should also have no trouble avoiding the economic pratfalls that prevented their Expo forefathers from maintaining a similar nucleus. It’s not a question of whether the Nationals will disrupt the long-standing ebb and flow of the National League East, it’s a matter of to what extent will they capitalize once they do. But as the Mariners and Yankees will tell you, hype is merely an appetizer that will leave you yearning for a full course meal.
*After a players strike split the 1981 MLB season in half, Major League Baseball decided to crown a division title winner for each half of the season. The Expos, after finishing 3rd in the NL East “first half,” finished in 1st after play was resumed for the “second half.” The Expos then defeated the Phillies (champions of the “first half”) in a pre-historic “Division Series.”