Bodley: Strasburg callup is so tempting
But Nationals are determined to be patient with phenom
The Washington Nationals could insert phenom Stephen Strasburg in their rotation immediately, pitch him every fifth day, sell a lot of tickets, satisfy their fans and have a chance to win a ton of games.
Sounds easy, doesn't it?
Especially after lackluster performances by starters John Lannan and Jason Marquis in opening losses to Philadelphia. Lannan didn't make it out of the fourth inning and Marquis was KO'd with nobody out in the fifth. And as the Nationals salvaged the final game of the three-game series with a 6-5 win on Thursday, starter Craig Stammen lasted just five innings and was not involved in the decision.
As I walked through the aisles at Nationals Park on Monday, many of the fans wondered why the 21-year-old Strasburg, with his enormous talent, wasn't wearing a Major League uniform. Instead, he's preparing for his Minor League debut on Sunday for Double-A Harrisburg.
Scouts I talked with during Spring Training are convinced the San Diego State product is the best prospect to come along in 25 years.
Strasburg, the celebrated No. 1 pick in the 2009 First-Year Player Draft who received a record $15.1 million contract, was 1-0 with a 2.00 earned run average in Grapefruit League games. He allowed just eight hits and one walk in nine innings, recording 12 strikeouts. His fastball has been clocked at 102 mph.
For a team smarting from two consecutive 100-loss seasons, that has to trigger temptation to rush him to the big leagues. Washington had a National League-worst 5.00 ERA in 2009. In short, the Nats need Stephen Strasburg.
That, however, won't happen any time soon, which is a tribute to general manager Mike Rizzo and his staff.
Too many young pitchers have been ruined by baseball people more interested in a win-now approach regardless of what is best for the welfare of the athlete.
Just ask Nationals manager Jim Riggleman, who was the Cubs skipper in 1998 when 20-year-old Kerry Wood arrived in Chicago.
Wood was outstanding that summer as the Cubs tried to win the NL pennant. In one game in May he struck out 20 batters. Wood averaged 12.6 strikeouts per nine innings, had a fastball that hit 100 mph and was named NL Rookie of the Year.
Since then Wood has had three arm surgeries and been on the disabled list at least 12 times.
Rizzo, in his first full season as Nationals GM, built his reputation in player development. He turns a deaf ear to anyone in his organization who second-guesses sending Strasburg to the Minors.
"There may have been a handful of guys who've been able to go from a college campus to succeed in the big leagues, but we want long-term success," he says. "The statistics of pitchers throwing a lot of innings at 21 or below aren't good. We don't want to force Strasburg into over-exerting himself on the Major League level just to get a couple wins or to sell some tickets. I'm not going to do that."
Rizzo and Riggleman refuse to say when Strasburg will make his Major League debut. My guess is it will be after Memorial Day if all goes well at Harrisburg.
There has even been speculation the Nationals may keep him in the Minors to "buy" a year in salary arbitration or extend his eligibility for free agency a year. Rizzo discounts that.
"When he's developmentally ready to pitch in the Major Leagues, we're not going to stop him," he says. "We need good pitchers and feel he's going to be a great performer for us."
Often pitchers are restricted to 100 or fewer pitches in the Minors. When they arrive in the big leagues they're often tossed into the fire and asked to throw well over that amount.
Wood's injuries and his demise since his great beginning have haunted Riggleman and, for sure, he's dedicated himself to not allowing that to happen to Strasburg. Wood says Riggleman wasn't responsible for his injuries. Others, including then Cubs GM Andy MacPhail, have defended him.
But the manager told The Washington Post: "If I had it to do over, I would do it differently. And we probably wouldn't have gotten to the playoffs. If I had known what was going to happen, I wouldn't have pitched him that much, period.
"But I would have caught a lot of grief. I caught a lot of grief as it was. We lost a lot of games where Wood came out after five or six innings. I was getting comments like, 'C'mon, Riggs, leave him in.' "
Outfielder Willie Harris asks, "How long can you keep that guy down there? I mean, he's going to kill that league. You can't leave him down there too long, that's for sure."
Rizzo adds, "His stuff is certainly Major League-ready, command of his stuff is Major League-ready. He does need work on the everydayness of professional baseball. He's used to pitching once a week at San Diego State. He's just now getting into the routine and rigors of professional pitching.
"He needs some seasoning in the other nuances of pitching -- controlling the running game, fielding his position, bunt plays, hitting, the art of bunting, backing up bases, pitching from the stretch. He didn't have a whole lot of experience with those things at the collegiate level or at the Arizona Fall League level."
What Strasburg really needs to do to solidify his future is build up arm strength. It has not been built up to handle the effort needed to compete against talented hitters in the National League.
"I want him to come to the Major Leagues, have success and never go back to the Minors," says Rizzo. "I've developed a lot of pitchers during my career and we're certainly treating him as the top prospect which he is."
As Spring Training ended and Strasburg left for the Minors, he told reporters: "Hopefully, my time is going to be soon."
But not too soon.
Hal Bodley is the senior correspondent for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.