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06/09/09 10:06 PM ET

Nationals must be patient with Strasburg

Once signed, club shouldn't rush their top pick to the Majors

WASHINGTON -- A few minutes after 5 o'clock ET on Tuesday, the skies above Nationals Park darkened and became ugly, sending the few fans in the house scurrying for cover. There was a scary blast of thunder and within a half hour the rain was so heavy you could barely see the Capitol in the distance over the left-field wall.

As I watched this drenching rain pelt the covered infield, putting the game with Cincinnati in doubt, this was uncanny symbolism of Washington Nationals baseball.

On what was the most important day for Nationals baseball since Washington was granted the gasping Montreal franchise in 2004, the gods were relentlessly raining on their parade.

But nearly an hour later in the plush -- and dry -- Presidents Club fans cheered, applauded and clinked glasses.

There was eerie quietness as they watched on MLB Network when Commissioner Bud Selig announced that possibly the greatest pitching prospect in the history of the First-Year Player Draft was, as expected, picked by Washington.

Inside the adjacent glass-enclosed Nationals Draft room there was obvious relief. And maybe even a feeling of accomplishment as they could hear the horde of fans let out a loud cheer.

San Diego State's Stephen Strasburg, a once-in-a-generation talent, is now poised to blow away the storm clouds that have hovered over this team.

Yes, it was raining outside, the game with Dusty Baker's Reds was being delayed, but the Washington fans didn't care. They already had a victory in their hands and it was spelled h-o-p-e.

Of course, it remains to be seen whether owner Ted Lerner, team president Stan Kasten and acting general manger Mark Rizzo can do business with agent Scott Boras and the obviously exaggerated $50 million bonus price tag that has been floated.

Strasburg will certainly break the Draft record of the $10.5 million bonus the Cubs gave Mark Prior in 2001. But $50 million?

"This is a great day in Nationals franchise history," Rizzo gushed after he used the team's 10th pick in the first round to take Stanford relief pitcher Drew Storen. "We're expecting great things from Stephen Strasburg as we are the No. 10 pick in the country.

"Both pitchers possess outstanding makeup, outstanding skills and outstanding character, which is the hallmark of the players we've been putting into the system here in Washington."

Unlike the NBA, even though he can have enormous impact it takes more than one player to turn a franchise around.

Strasburg, however, can become the face of the franchise. If he can be signed, the message of commitment to winning will reverberate inside and outside the Beltway. He will become a drawing card every time he pitches, much like Tom Seaver was for the Mets as that franchise turned itself around.

Consider this: The 6-foot-4, 220-pound Strasburg was 22-7 with a 1.59 ERA in three collegiate seasons. He was 13-1 this spring with a 1.32 ERA in 15 starts for the Aztecs, who were coached by Hall of Famer Tony Gwynn.

The right-hander, who has had his fastball clocked at 103 mph, is so special that Ted Lerner and his son Mark traveled across the country to see Strasburg pitch. Word is they were blown away by his talent.

But even with all the superlatives and credentials it's a long way from San Diego State to the Major Leagues.

Assuming the Nationals are able to sign Strasburg and no matter how tempted they might be to capitalize on his popularity and rush him to the Majors, they must be patient.

Pitchers are fragile to begin with. Second, should he have a bad outing or two, his confidence would be shattered.

In more than 50 years reporting baseball I can never remember a player that's received the buildup this No. 1 pick has achieved.

I also can remember numerous No. 1 picks who've been huge disappointments.

The Nationals must do everything in their power to make sure this does not happen.

Rizzo agrees.

"Development is probably the second most important part of acquiring Major League talent," he said. "The scouts can draft the right players, but development has to prepare them to play in the Major Leagues. There's no shortcut to this process.

"It's a process you cannot rush. Some players develop faster than others, As far as I'm concerned there's no pitcher or player Major League ready coming out of the Draft. You have to be very careful about the innings pitched and the amount of pitches he throws in any given game. As we all know strikeout pitchers use many more pitches than your sinker-slider guys. And Stephen strikes out a lot of batters and throws a lot of pitches."

But as great as the fans believe Strasburg can be, he's not ready to walk on water.

And even Rizzo stops short when it's suggested Strasburg is the greatest prospect of all time.

"I don't know why he's called that," he said. "I see the guy as an outstanding pitching prospect. He's got a great package -- two-plus pitches, he's got size and leverage, downhill plane, and the ability to throw both pitches for strikes. He competes well on the mound and a tremendous pitching package. That was the reason we took him No. 1 and the reason he was considered the top player in the Draft."

By 9 o'clock the skies above Nationals Park had cleared and Ross Detwiler retired the Cincinnati Reds in order.

And then Selig's announcement of the Strasburg selection was replayed on the jumbo TV in the outfield as the game finally began.

The sparse crowd cheered.

At least for that moment the dark clouds were gone.

Hal Bodley is the senior correspondent for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.