Nationals eagerly await Strasburg's arrival in '10
Of all the questions surrounding the 2010 Washington Nationals - a club coming off consecutive 100-loss seasons - one particular doubt stands above all others.
And it doesn't even involve a player on the opening day roster.
Everybody wants to know: When is Stephen Strasburg going to be called up? When will he be pitching in the majors, selling tickets and whiffing hitters? When will he start trying to help Ryan Zimmerman, Adam Dunn, Ivan Rodriguez and the rest of the Nationals turn themselves into a competitive team?
Strasburg, the lanky righty out of San Diego State with the high-90s mph fastball and variety of other pitches, was the No. 1 overall pick in June's amateur draft. He signed a record $15.1 million contract in August, and somehow managed to be as good as advertised against big league hitters during exhibitions this spring.
The Nationals acknowledge it is a matter of ``when'' - not ``if'' - he will pitch for them this season.
``No question. Yes, he will,'' manager Jim Riggleman said. ``Only thing that would stop that would be an injury, and we'll do everything we can in the organization to not let that happen.''
The 21-year-old Strasburg might as well have been speaking for every Nationals fan when he said in late March: ``Hopefully, my time is going to be soon.''
He will open the season at Double-A Harrisburg, and the Nationals already have lined up his first appearance in the minors with Washington's No. 5 starter's schedule.
``What I think is going to be interesting is: How long can you keep that guy down there? I mean, he's going to kill that league,'' outfielder Willie Harris said. ``My questions is: 'How long?' You can't leave him down there too long, that's for sure.''
The popular guess for a Strasburg sighting in the nation's capital is early June.
Another player who will begin the season at Harrisburg but is expected to make his major league debut soon is Drew Storen. He is the closer-in-waiting that was drafted 10th overall.
Strasburg and the 22-year-old Storen are viewed as key cogs in what general manager Mike Rizzo likes to refer to as a ``building,'' rather than a ``rebuilding.''
``The young talent coming up here is very exciting, and we'll see it kind of breaking through this year,'' said Dunn, whose two-year deal expires after this season and has expressed a desire to get an extension done. ``I've already been through the bad. I'd like to be part of the good, you know?''
This will be Rizzo's first full season as the full-time, full-fledged GM since taking over for Jim Bowden. Same goes for Riggleman, who had an interim tag when he replaced Manny Acta in July.
``We're beyond moral victories and playing better,'' Rizzo said. ``We want to win games. We want to be a real, real, real tough team to play.''
He brought aboard a bunch of new faces in key roles, including starting catcher Rodriguez, closer Matt Capps, starting second baseman Adam Kennedy, and No. 2 man in the rotation Jason Marquis - free-agent signings, all. So was Chien-Ming Wang, who twice won 19 games for the New York Yankees but had shoulder surgery and isn't expected to be pitching until May or June.
``They all have had some level of success in their careers. That breeds the character issue and learning how to win and expectations to win,'' Rizzo said. ``We like to surround our players with as many players that have won championships that we can. That was a conscious effort for me this winter.''
There's also new starting shortstop Ian Desmond, a rookie who won the job over incumbent Cristian Guzman.
Those are the types of changes that the club hopes will distance it from all of the losing that dates to its days as the Montreal Expos. In five seasons since moving to Washington, the franchise has four last-place finishes and one next-to-last-place finish.
``It's not like we're stuck with a core of losing players. Everyone in this room, for the most part, wasn't here three years ago. So do they really know what happened here?'' reliever Jason Bergmann said, scanning the team's spring training clubhouse at Space Coast Stadium in Viera, Fla. ``These are all new guys, with different attitudes, different personalities. It's not like this is a set of guys who contributed to the losing. We have more proven guys, with better track records. And it's from the top down: We have a different GM, different manager, different players.''
There are holdovers, of course, including speedy center fielder and leadoff man Nyjer Morgan, and the group of 3-4-5 hitters who carried an offense that was vastly improved if still middling last season: Gold Glove third baseman Zimmerman, first-baseman-in-training Dunn and left fielder Josh Willingham.
The team's biggest problems in 2009 were pitching (NL-worst 5.00 ERA) and defense (majors-worst 146 errors). Rizzo is sure the defense will be better thanks to a full season of Morgan (he was acquired midseason from the Pirates, then missed time while injured), along with Rodriguez and Kennedy. The pitching, though, still might be shaky.
Until, everyone assumes, Strasburg arrives.
``The sky's the limit for this guy. If he stays healthy, I think all the hype is justified,'' the generally mild-mannered Rizzo said. ``He's a supreme athlete and a supreme prospect, with major league-ready stuff, that we thought needed a little bit more seasoning in the minor leagues.''
AP freelance writer Tim Walters in Viera, Fla., contributed to this report.