One of the most tragic stories of this past off-season was the passing of 29-year-old Tommy Hanson. The former Atlanta Braves pitcher died from "delayed complications of cocaine and alcohol toxicity," per his autopsy report.
I still remember vividly seeing the then-22-year-old pitch in person for the first time as he totally dominated the 2008 Arizona Fall League. Hanson compiled a 5–0 record with a 0.63 ERA while striking out 49 in just 28 2/3 innings. That earned the Oklahoma native the AFL’s MVP Award, as the first-ever pitcher to achieve that honor.
Due to some strange rules that have since been changed for the better, by having finished sixth in the Xperts Fantasy League (or XFL) in 2008, I owned the first pick in the league’s auxiliary draft in April 2009.
Though it had been six months since I had been wowed by Hanson’s performances in the desert, I felt certain that the 6-foot-6 right-hander could be an anchor for my keeper league roster for the next six to eight seasons at least. (Future salaries of XFL players acquired while still minor leaguers only grow by $3 per season compared to $5 for all other players, increasing their keeper value.)
I had a dilemma, however. The legend of San Diego State pitching phenom Stephen Strasburg - who struck out 23 batters in one game and was hitting 100 mph on scouts’ guns – was already growing. At the time of our April 2009 draft, Strasburg was nearly through his junior year, during which he went 13-1 with a 1.32 ERA and 195 strikeouts in 109 innings.
In a few months, the Scott Boras client would become the number one selection in the 2009 First-Year Player Draft. After a very delicate negotiating period that ended less than two minutes before the signing deadline, Strasburg agreed to terms with the Washington Nationals.
But on that day in April, I had to make a decision. Do I take the seemingly surer thing in Hanson and hope he can help power my sixth-place squad in the 15-team league to the top in 2009, or gamble that the college kid Strasburg would really become a “generational talent” in the Major Leagues?
I ended up taking Hanson with the first pick. Surprisingly, Strasburg fell to number three, with the second pick used on Nelson Cruz. Though he was traded twice in the XFL in the seven years since, Strasburg remains on his original contract in our league, currently at just $19.
Fast forward to 2015, when I came in fourth in the XFL. (Strasburg’s team was third.) With a revised set of rules that make far more sense, that finish presented me with the third selection in our April auxiliary draft.
I felt I had another Hanson-Strasburg type of looming ahead between two very different players from different continents.
Newly-signed Korean first baseman Byung-ho Park had a solid spring with his new club, the Minnesota Twins, suggesting the difficult-to-predict transition from baseball in the East to baseball in the West would prove to be ok in his case. Because he had no prior MLB experience, Park was even more appealing as a “+3” player in the XFL.
On the downside, Park was still unproven in MLB games that count. His age, 29, was not ideal and with Joe Mauer entrenched at first base for the Twins, Park may end up being a DH-only player for the remainder of his career. Of course, that limits fantasy roster flexibility and value.
The other player most prominently on my radar screen was slugging Cuban third baseman Yulieski Gurriel. Like Strasburg in spring 2009, Gurriel was not even yet under contract with an MLB club. While his hitting pedigree is impeccable, his age (32 in June) is a concern – especially given my intention of continuing to compete for a title in the XFL this season and for the foreseeable future.
When push came to shove, I was willing to give up results this season in return for greater upside, albeit for a potentially shorter period of time. If I had the choice, I decided I would pass on Park and take the elder Gurriel.
As often occurs in drafts, it did not begin as I expected. The first pick was Dodgers rookie starter Kenta Maeda. Pick number two went to a traditional prospect, hurler Blake Snell, soon to be ready to join the Rays. Both are solid picks as +3 players, but not my first choices.
That meant my field was still wide open. I stuck to my plan and took Gurriel while Park remained on the board until nabbed by a delighted but surprised Ron Shandler with the fifth overall pick.
Early returns are clearly in Shandler’s favor as Park swatted his seventh long ball of the season Tuesday night, putting him on a full-season pace for 42. Still unsigned, Gurriel has not been in the news for weeks.
Only time will tell if my Gurriel gambit proves to be more successful than my decision to pass on Strasburg in favor of Hanson seven years ago. Either way, here is hoping I don’t remember it as vividly, for multiple reasons.
Brian Walton was the 2009 National League Tout Wars champion, scoring the most points in the league’s 17-year history. He also holds the all-time NL Tout single-season records for wins and saves. His work can also be found daily at TheCardinalNation.com and thecardinalnationblog.com. Follow Brian on Twitter.