Photo by Mark Zuckerman / NATS INSIDER
Stephen Strasburg couldn't have done much more in his spring training debut.
And when the first two innings of Stephen Strasburg's professional career were complete, when the shock and awe of watching a 21-year-old make All-Star big-league hitters look silly with a repertoire of four "plus" pitches, there was really only one question left to ask.
Is this guy ready to pitch in the major leagues right now?
Since the day they drafted him first in the country and then handed him a record $15.1 million contract, the Nationals have made it clear they don't want to rush Strasburg. They respect the development process that has been in place for 100 years, and he needs to experience it just like everyone else. He'll be in the big leagues this year, probably before the All-Star break. But his chance of cracking the Opening Day rotation is tissue-paper thin.
And then after two years of hype, Strasburg actually faced major-league hitters for the first time and dominated them like they were juniors at Colorado State, not the Nos. 3 and 4 hitters for the Detroit Tigers.
So the question had to be asked again this afternoon: Is Strasburg competing for a spot in the Opening Day rotation? Jim Riggleman's answer was slightly tweaked from previous ones.
"We'll make a decision about whether he's on the ballclub or not," the manager said. "But I think in his mind, he's doing the right thing. He's just competing to get hitters out, and if that puts him on the ballclub, that would be his wish I'm sure. I guess indirectly, he is competing for a spot on the club in his mind. We'll make that call as an organization. But as far as he knows, he's like everybody else trying to make the club."
No talk of "respecting the process." No "unlikely" qualifiers. No firm answer one way or the other.
I may have read too much into it, but it sure sounded to me like the door opened ever so slightly today in the Nationals' minds.
After watching Strasburg, it's not hard to believe anything's possible. No less an authority than Tigers manager Jim Leyland said of the kid: "A guy like that's probably not long for the minors."
Where to begin? How about with the fastball, that once-in-a-generation heater that blew away opponents at San Diego State and blew away opponents at Space Coast Stadium. It registered anywhere between 94 mph and 98 mph today, which is actually on the lower end of the spectrum for a guy who has routinely cracked triple digits in the past.
The reason for the diminished velocity? "Most of the pitches he threw were sinkers," catcher Wil Nieves said. Ninety-seven mph sinkers? Yeah. Strasburg threw only one or two four-seam fastballs, most notably a 98 mph laser to strike out Miguel Cabrera.
And, believe it or not, his fastball isn't even his best pitch. That would be his breaking ball, a hybird slider/curve that comes in around 81 mph and darts down and away from right-handed hitters. Brent Dlugach, Strasburg's other strikeout victim, saw that one firsthand when he froze on a 3-2 breaking ball to end the second inning.
What about the change-up? Well, it comes in at 91 mph and it drops like a splitter. Do you know how many members of the Nationals' pitching staff can't even throw a fastball 91 mph? (The projected Opening Day starter, for one.) A skeptic might say it's actually too hard for a change-up, that there should be a greater difference from the fastball to really be effective. But as Strasburg points out, his change-up can be plenty effective at that ridiculous speed.
"The thing that's going to sell it is your arm speed," he said. "That's what I'm trying to go out there and do, just locate it down in the zone. Throw it on the seams like a change-up, and it's going to have some downward tilt to it. It could be 5-6 mph lower and still be super-effective."
So clearly, Strasburg has the arsenal to pitch in the major leagues. Plenty of big-league hurlers have only or two legitimate pitches. He's got four.
"And the amazing thing is, it's not just the stuff," pitching coach Steve McCatty said. "It's the ability to locate it."
Strasburg also has another key trait critical to his success: He knows how to pitch. It's one thing to be able to throw a baseball wherever you want. It's quite another to know when to throw which pitch and how to go after big-league batters. Strasburg understands that already, and what he doesn't know, he asks.
"He's a guy who wants to learn," Nieves said. "And if you tell him something, he'll listen to you. That's what you want. When you have a guy like that with that talent and willing to learn and to be humble, he's going to be good. He's going to have a lot of success wherever he is."
So, we ask the question again: Is Strasburg ready to pitch in the majors in April?
More and more, the answer appears to be yes.
Here's the thing, though: Even if he's ready, there are several good reasons for the Nationals not to bring him north at the end of camp.
1. He still needs to learn how to pitch on a five-day regimen. Strasburg got a taste of that in Arizona last fall, but he needs to experience it a bit more. In college, he pitched once a week. Now, he needs to throw bullpen sessions two days after pitching, then prepare for his next start on a new schedule.
2. He still needs to learn the little things about being a professional ballplayer. Long road trips. Day games after night games. All the stuff you never think of until you're actually experiencing it. Just ask Ryan Zimmerman, who spent only three months in the minors before making his big-league debut in September 2005.
"Obviously, pitching might be a little different," Zimmerman said. "But he's going to have to learn what his throwing program is in between his five days and learn how to look at video and all that. For me, it was just learning the routine every day. 'Cause in college, you play five games a week and have three days off. Once you get here, you struggle or get into a funk for two or three days, there's no escaping it. You have to figure out within the game or before the game what it is you're doing wrong and make the adjustment."
3. By keeping him in the minors for a couple of the months, the Nationals can delay his arbitration and free agent clocks and keep him under club control through 2016. This isn't a cheap-ownership ploy. It's smart baseball economics. Why risk letting a guy become a free agent one year earlier than you have to?
4. He's not going to help the Nationals win in 2010 anyway. This may be the toughest pill to swallow, but it's an important point. This year's club is not going to contend for anything. It's just not. The Nats are 0-7 this spring, having allowed 70 runs and 105 hits, equating to a ghastly 10.68 ERA. No, these games don't count and you shouldn't read too much into them. But there is some truth behind it all. This club is not ready to win yet. Why rush Strasburg just to help you try to get from 67 wins to 72? It's not worth it.
The Nationals don't have to make this decision tonight. They've got a couple weeks. See Strasburg pitch again a few times and get a better sense of where he really is in his development.
For now, just enjoy what we saw today and appreciate it for what it was. The man at the center of it all certainly did.
"It was a blast," Strasburg said. "It really was."