Can't go wrong in 'great' debate

Strasburg, Chapman at top of wave of pitching talent

March 14, 2010|By Phil Rogers

Davey Johnson dropped a Dwight Gooden on Stephen Strasburg. Scouting legend Art Stewart, who chiseled his first reports on stone tablets, upped the ante in describing Aroldis Chapman.

Stewart called the lanky Cuban the "best young left-handed arm I've seen since Herb Score," and in doing so crossed a bridge that spans 55 years, to Score's rookie season with the Indians. A few phenoms have come and gone since then.

So who's better: Chapman or Strasburg?

That's the great baseball argument of the moment, one that turned white hot after the two newcomers combined for this pitching line in their spring debuts: 4 IP, 3 H, 0 R, 0 ER, 1 BB, 5 SO. There's no right or wrong answer. The amazing thing is there can be a discussion.

You watch either the Nationals' Strasburg in Florida or the Reds' Chapman in Arizona and you cannot believe there's another prospect that compares to him. But there is - and if there is a baseball god, he will put them on the same mound at some point during their two series this season, June 4-6 in Washington and July 19-22 in Cincinnati.

Seldom have so many comparisons been made, or so much hyperbole flown around cyberspace, as there has been this spring about Strasburg and Chapman. The thing is, it's justified. And if it weren't so easy to glimpse greatness watching those two, a couple other unusually good pitching prospects would be generating the headlines.

Neftali Feliz (Rangers) and Madison Bumgarner (Giants) are eye-popping. They're 21 and 20, respectively, and while the right-handed Feliz makes pure power his calling card, the left-handed Bumgarner is a legitimate pitching prodigy. He's the youngest of these four, yet he has done more to establish himself than any of the others, using the 16 months after his high school graduation to go 27-5 with a 1.65 ERA over 273 innings while racing through the Giants' system.

The Orioles' Brian Matusz, the White Sox's Daniel Hudson, the Red Sox's Casey Kelly and the Rangers' Tanner Scheppers are among the prospects following behind Strasburg, Chapman, Feliz and Bumgarner in an epic wave of pitching talent.

Chapman's fastball was clocked as high as 102 mph in his debut, and his slider was untouchable. Strasburg hit 98 against the Tigers, and his final pitch was a 90 mph changeup that moved downward and seemed violent enough to cause a hernia.

Chapman struck out two Dodgers over two scoreless innings in his second start Friday, allowing two hits. Strasburg will make second start his Sunday.

Given the Nationals' standing as a repeat pick for last place in the NL East, there's little chance Strasburg can do anything this spring to earn an immediate trip to the big leagues. The Reds, on the other hand, have a lot invested in starting fast. Look for Chapman to be in the opening rotation, likely making his regular-season debut against the Cubs on April 9 or 10.

Something brewing: Cubs hitting coach Rudy Jaramillo is not the only new coach who could make an impact on the NL Central race. The Brewers upgraded at pitching coach after unsuccessfully giving longtime bullpen coach Bill Castro the chance to replace Mike Maddux.

Rick Peterson, who first gained renown working with the A's Big Three of Tim Hudson, Barry Zito and Mark Mulder, is working for manager Ken Macha. Early results have been encouraging, including a change he has made in 35-year-old Jeff Suppan's delivery.

Guaranteed $12.5 million but no longer a spot in the rotation after going 7-12 with a 5.29 ERA last season, Suppan is under the gun this spring. He's throwing well thanks to Peterson's suggestion that pitchers move their hands to get some rhythm.

Sweeney swinging: Five-time AL All-Star Mike Sweeney isn't given much of a chance to land a spot with the Mariners, who have a clubhouse full of lineup options. But he opened the spring going 10-for-13 with six RBIs, including a three-run double off Feliz last week.

This doesn't exactly come out of nowhere. Sweeney's .281 average last season included a .311 mark in the second half. Along with Ken Griffey Jr., Sweeney received a lot of credit for improving the tone of the Mariners' clubhouse last year.

Griffey is expected to get the bulk of DH at-bats this year, but Sweeney is making good on his non-roster invitation.

Together again: The beauty of the silly one-day contract Nomar Garciaparra signed with Boston is it ends an awkward separation between the once beloved shortstop and Red Sox Nation. Unhappiness over his contract situation led to Garciaparra's 2004 trade to the Cubs, but both sides wanted to end what has been a cold war.

"Nomar was such a central figure in everything good that has happened to the Red Sox," GM Theo Epstein said. "It's appropriate. This is a little bit of a fairy-tale end. In life there is some adversity and conflict, but in the end people can come together and recognize what they meant to one another."

The last word: "It was a blast." - Strasburg on his first Grapefruit League game.

Phil Rogers covers baseball for the Chicago Tribune.

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