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The Big Twenty: The beginning of Stephen Strasburg and Bryce Harper

The Big Twenty: The beginning of Stephen Strasburg and Bryce Harper

For the next two weeks, NBC Sports Washington will be rolling out the 20 biggest stories in DMV sports in the past 20 years. Here is No. 13.

 

No draft pick in professional sports offers true guarantees and the Major League Baseball draft may be the biggest guessing game of them all. 

There are 40 rounds, over 1,200 players selected and even the best organizations may only find a few big leaguers each year. Per Baseball America, only 17.6 percent of players who were drafted and signed (900-plus each year) even make it to the majors.

While No. 1 pick phenoms in the NBA, NFL and NHL have at least decent success rates, baseball is a much different story. For instance, the first overall picks in MLB drafts from 2013 through 2019 have a combined 3.7 wins above replacement (WAR), according to Baseball Reference.

Sure, that includes recent selections who simply aren't yet big-league ready. But the first overall picks in 2013 (Mark Appel), 2014 (Brady Aiken) and 2016 (Mickey Moniak) haven't even reached the majors. Appel is now retired, Aiken has never pitched above Single-A and Moniak hasn't graduated from Double-A.

So, just because you get the first overall pick in baseball doesn't mean you are ensured a superstar. Yet somehow the Washington Nationals landed two of them in back-to-back years. In 2009, they got pitcher Stephen Strasburg. The following year he made his first start - and the Nationals drafted outfielder Bryce Harper.

Both were phenoms and prototypes for their position who were as can't-miss as baseball draft picks can be and the clear-cut No. 1 prospects the years they came out. And despite the uneven track record of No. 1 picks, they both panned out in Washington, becoming multi-time All-Stars and franchise players. 

Harper won NL Rookie of the Year in 2012, made six All-Star teams and won the 2015 MVP award during his time with the Nationals.

He also became one of the most marketable players in the sport.

Strasburg overcame a particularly troubled history for starting pitchers taken first overall. At the time he was drafted, no pitcher picked No. 1 had won a Cy Young award.

Since joining the Nats, Strasburg has made three All-Star teams and most notably was the 2019 World Series MVP. He was an indispensable part of their championship run.

 From 2002 through 2006, the first overall pick produced next to nothing. There is Justin Upton from the 2005 draft, a four-time All-Star. But then there's Bryan Bullington (2002, -0.2 WAR), Delmon Young (2003, 2.4 WAR), Matt Bush (2004, 2.6 WAR) and Luke Hochevar (2006, 3.5 WAR). That makes four busts in five years.

Really, the Harper and Strasburg picks couldn't have worked out much better for the Nationals. One guy won a league MVP and the other a World Series MVP. That's not a bad haul for back-to-back drafts.

But keep in mind that when they were picked, neither Harper or Strasburg was a certainty.
They each took their rookie contract negotiations down to the deadline. Both battled injuries early in their Nationals careers. And both were lightning rods for criticism as they came into their own as MLB players.

Ultimately, they developed into superstars and transcendent players, the best-case scenario for any No. 1 overall pick, much less two taken in consecutive drafts by the same team.

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Astros wade through first boo-filled night of many to come

Astros wade through first boo-filled night of many to come

WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. -- The only agreed upon factor of Saturday night’s spring training opener was affinity for Dusty Baker. 

Baker, alone at home plate to receive a ceremonial first pitch, raised his hand to the crowd when announced. Both sides cheered. Those in red stood, some shouted his name. Others on the Houston side could unabashedly applaud Baker. He represented what’s next, not what was.

But the past chased the Astros from the second the ballpark opened. Any Houston highlights were followed by hefty boos. “FOR THE H” flashed on the right-center field video board during the evening on what was supposed to be an Astros “home” game. However, there was nothing warm and fuzzy about the location for the Astros, an experience sure to track them outside of Houston throughout the season.

The Astros were booed en masse since Baker did not play any of his regulars. Myles Straw, Jeremy Pena and Taylor Jones began the game against Max Scherzer. It’s difficult to let Nos. 3, 89 and 79, respectively, have it on the first night of spring training. But, those on the team in 2017 remained safely in the dugout, prompting an expansion of targets.

Before Scherzer began his night, the Astros’ mascot, Orbit, ran across the face of the Washington dugout with an oversized Houston flag. He, too, was booed -- with fervor. Anything representing the Astros was in play since their main facets were not on the field.

Two signs carried by Nationals fans were taken by a ballpark employee. Some Washington fans banged on their seats during the game to mimic the Astros’ prior method for stealing signs. Scherzer thought something colorful had a chance to leak into the setting.

“I figured something like that was going to happen,” Scherzer said. “I got a good taste of what it’s like [when] facing [Bryce Harper] last year when we had our whole crowd going. I thought our fans would boo. I didn’t realize it was going to be that loud when I face Harp. That was a playoff atmosphere. Everything gets turned up a notch when the fans get into it.”

Scherzer threw 22 pitches, 13 for strikes in two innings. He allowed a single and struck out two batters he’s unlikely to ever face again. Otherwise, he was nonplussed to face the Astros in a game rain forced to pause, then stop, after two innings and a head-scratching delay.

“We won the World Series,” Scherzer said. “It wasn’t like I have a vendetta to hold. So, for me, over here we’re just trying to move forward and get ready for our season.”

Baker thought the reception went as expected.

“There were a lot of Nationals fans here,” Baker said. “We had a lot of fans here, too. You could tell who was for us and who was against us. All in all, it wasn’t too bad. You kind of expect to get some. But they weren’t too bad, though.”

So, the night ultimately served as the expected start. Scherzer pitched well. The Astros were booed.

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Astros booed, fans' signs taken in spring training opener against Nationals

Astros booed, fans' signs taken in spring training opener against Nationals

As if this week hadn’t already been bad enough for the Houston Astros, it got a bit worse on Saturday afternoon when they faced the Washington Nationals in the spring training opener. 

The Astros took the field at the Ballpark of the Palm Beaches and were welcomed by the fans with an eruption of boos. The two teams share the facility, but it was Houston's home game. 

Since 2017 Washington and Houston have shared their spring training facility in West Palm Beach and made it a tradition to kick off their respective Grapefruit League schedules against each other. They will play six times this spring - though Saturday's opener was postponed by rain after a scoreless two innings. 

One courageous fan really got into the act, holding up a sign reading "Houston *'s" that was eventually confiscated by ballpark personnel, according to the Associated Press.

If this start is any indication of what they will face throughout this season, it's going to be a long 2020 for the Astros. 

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