When Stephen Strasburg left the mound last Sunday, it wasn't to a chorus of cheers as it had been during his debut. He left to a few boos, and with a big mess all over the bases. And who was it that had the pooper scooper that day? 'Twas Drew Storen, the Nats' other first-round pick.
He, as he's done most of the time Jim Riggleman has called on him, got the job done, saving Strasburg's ERA -- and (as any fanboy can tell you) preserving Strassy's Cy Young chances.
But the story of Storen and how he got here isn't simple. If things broke differently, he's pitching for Milwaukee or St. Louis. So how'd he end up here instead of there? Gross incompetence, mostly. But basically, he's here because of one big quasi-trade.
As any long-suffering Nats fan can remind you, in the first round of the 2008 draft, the Nationals picked starting pitcher Aaron Crow from the University of Missouri. And as any long-suffering Nats fan can tell you, they never signed him.
Now there's plenty of blame for that. And we'll probably never know the real story there. The owners didn't sign off the the extra tiny bit of money that divided the two sides at the end. The kid's agents didn't get serious about negotiating until (quite literally) the 11th hour -- that's the 23rd hour, if you're using military time. The kid wasn't forceful enough with agents to just get the negotiations done. The team's scouts didn't properly assess the demands the team's agents would make. And the GM -- Jim Bowden, in case you've tried blacking it out -- ended up squandering a pick.
But, because the rules of the draft had changed, it wasn't truly a squandering, and that's what leads us to Storen. When Crow didn't sign, the Nats received a compensatory selection in the 2009 draft. In effect, the team traded 2008 Aaron Crow for 2009 Drew Storen.
There are always a few ways of looking at moves. You can evaluate them immediately based on what you know at the time. Or, you can evaluate them later based on what you find out.
Based on what we knew, the "trade" from Crow to Storen was a downgrade. The potential of a starting pitcher is always going to be higher than the potential of a reliever. Further, because the Nats wouldn't have received a second compensatory pick should they have not signed Storen, it's reasonable to assume that the player's signability was a concern -- meaning they may not have taken the highest ceiling player available. All of that was and is true today.
But look at that trade another way. Storen has 12 games under his belt. He shows an impressive assortment of pitches, with decent command and control. He strikes batters out. He keeps the ball in the park. And he pitches in tough situations without making viewers' sphincters pucker.
Would you trade that for a Double-A starter with a 5.66 ERA and a measly 5.7 K/9 rate? You don't have to answer; it's rhetorical.
Baseball is a funny game. You can make the right decision and have it fail spectacularly. And the converse is also true. You can screw things up, and have things go perfectly. Maybe that fielder throws away the pointless sacrifice bunt down the first-base line. Maybe the worst reliever in the pen gets a critical out or three. The outcome doesn't validate the incorrect decisions that went into it, but it certainly neutralizes their effect.
So we're left with an uncomfortable question: Did Jim Bowden do right by the Nats? Did he fail so spectacularly with the Aaron Crow draft pick that the Nats stumbled into something better?
Maybe it's too early to answer that question with complete certainty. But I'm sure we know how Stephen Strasburg and his low ERA would answer it.