Spring training preview, Part V: Stephen Strasburg

Hello from BWI International Airport, where I’m killing time on the set of MASN’s commercial shoot for spring training. It promises to be a fun day, and for those of you keenly interested in mocking my performance, that opportunity should be available to you soon.

As I’ve said, I’ll be in Viera tomorrow, but I’ll have some things to pass along from the Chien-Ming Wang press conference later today. For now, we’re going to continue on with the last installment in our spring training preview. This edition focuses on the guy most of you are probably wondering about: Stephen Strasburg.


There is virtually no ceiling on the hype surrounding Strasburg, no restraints on the pace at which it can accelerate. An impressive outing here, a three-digit fastball or a swooping slider there, and Strasburg will propel one idea to the forefront of Nationals fans’ minds everywhere:

How soon will this kid be in the majors?

The task for general manager Mike Rizzo is to act as a resistor to the current of hype that will be circulating around Florida this spring, and he knows it. Rizzo is paid to develop players, not sell tickets. That might be a pleasant function of his main duties, but he can’t let it be more than that.

Asked about the Strasburg buzz at last month’s NatsFest, Rizzo said: “I can’t be affected by the level of excitement. I’ve got to develop this player to the utmost of his ability, and I have to make sure he’s developed in the best way to have long-term success.”

Nonetheless, the buzz will exist anyway, and that’s primarily because the 21-year-old Strasburg, whom the Nationals took with the first pick in last June’s First-Year Player Draft draft, looks like the talent of a generation.

It’s all there: the otherworldly heat, the bewitching slider, the ability to command both sides of the plate and the nerve to go after hitters. That’s not to say Strasburg isn’t in some need of refinement; scouts say his changeup needs to get better, particularly against left-handers, and his four-seam fastball has a tendency to flatten out at times. No matter how hard it is, the Albert Pujolses of the game will hit it if it’s on a straight line.

But despite all that, there’s a very good chance Strasburg is one of the Nationals’ five best pitchers at the end of camp. So the question then becomes, do you send him to the minors to get a little seasoning (and hopefully delay his arbitration eligibility by a year), or do you put him on the 25-man roster?

Right now, it would seem likely the Nationals will choose the former. Their Class A affiliate in Woodbridge, Va., released a Strasburg ticket package earlier this week, and starting him with Potomac would give fans in the Washington area a chance to see him while he works out whatever kinks may pop up this spring. It would be a shock, though, if Strasburg’s arrival in the major leagues happens anytime after August 1. The Nationals made a $15.1 million investment in the San Diego State product, and it stands to reason they’ll want to see returns sooner than later. And as patient a GM as Rizzo is, there doesn’t seem to be much reason to spend too many innings and pitches on Strasburg in the minors.

But all this is speculation based on exactly zero pitches to major league hitters. From today on, it will be up to Strasburg to show how much of that speculation is well-founded.

So here are my questions:

1. Say Strasburg is one of the five best this spring. Do you start him in the majors, or do you send him down anyway?

2. If he makes 25 starts in the majors this year, what do you expect from him, statistically?

3. How much concern do you have about the level of expectations that are being placed on him this spring?