Even with Drew Storen and Stephen Strasburg alternately making cases all spring they deserved to be on the Nationals' Opening Day roster, the Nationals held firm to their belief that both should start the year in the minor leagues. And on Saturday morning, a day after Strasburg rebounded from a pair of home runs to look as major-league ready as he has all spring, the Nationals made the decision they were expected to make all along.
They cut both players from major-league camp on Saturday, optioning Strasburg to Class AA Harrisburg and re-assigning Storen to minor league camp, though Storen has been told he will also start at Harrisburg.
Strasburg gave up his only two runs of the spring on Friday night, when the Cardinals' Tyler Greene and Allen Craig hit back-to-back homers off him, but spent the rest of his three starts just this side of dominant. He struck out 12 and walked one in nine innings, allowing eight hits and showing he can get quick groundouts as easily as he can strike people out. The Nationals' concerns with him are so minor -- for example, they want him to slow down his delivery to the plate by a couple tenths of a second -- it seems like he'd be ready to start in the majors now. But, as manager Jim Riggleman said, they're taking a "safety first" approach with the phenom.
Storen finished with a couple of rough outings, but pitched shutout innings in his first three appearances of the spring.
"(We're) being consistent with our player development plan," general manager Mike Rizzo said. "We feel they need seasoning down in the minor leagues. For the benefit of their development, they need some time to refine their tremendous skills. Both conversations went well. Both players, obviously, are competitors. They're disappointed they didn't make the club, but they understood the rationale behind the decisions."
Rizzo said he didn't have a date for Strasburg to make his first start at Harrisburg yet, but he is currently on track to pitch April 8, which would mean his first start would come with Harrisburg on the road against Altoona. Rizzo wouldn't rule out Strasburg pitching April 3 in the Nationals' exhibition against the Red Sox at Nationals Park.
From there, it's likely both Strasburg and Storen would go to Class AAA Syracuse before being promoted to the majors. Rizzo gave no timetable for when either player might make his big-league debut, saying their development would dictate the pace.
"You've heard me make this speech since we got the first pick in the draft last year and started talking about Strasburg," Rizzo said. "I'm not a believer that a player can come from amateur baseball and step right into the major leagues. I've seen terrific prospects attempt it, and the failure rate is too great. This is a prized asset. Both he and Drew are prized assets. We have to do what's best for both the player and the organization long-term, and I think the best way to do it is to get them some seasoning in the minor leagues, and then step on the biggest stage, the best baseball league in the world, and get after it. The goal is for when they get up there, they never go back."
There's also the consideration that particularly in Strasburg's case, the Nationals could save themselves some money by sending the pitcher to the minor leagues and delaying the start of his major-league service time, thus postponing his eligibility for arbitration and free agency by a year.
Strasburg, while saying he believed he had a chance to make the team, acknowledged the financial reality of the situation.
"It's a business," Strasburg said. "That's all I got to say. It's not the perfect situation. But it's their decision."
Storen will go with Strasburg to Harrisburg -- "It's kind of more just me following him around," he joked. But in reality, there's a rationale to keeping the two players together; the Nationals see them as being on similar trajectories, and they've started to develop a friendship from their time together in the Arizona Fall League.
"I like that group together. They're comfortable with each other," Rizzo said. "Where you start's not important. It's where you finish."