SAN FRANCISCO - It's striking to think about the difference what happened a year ago today, when Stephen Strasburg packed Nationals Park and struck out 14 hitters in his major league debut, and what will happen today, when Yunesky Maya takes the mound, in the second year of a four-year deal, still looking for his first major league quality start.
The Nationals have had to invest in pitchers like Maya - who could still turn out to be an effective major leaguer but hasn't shown any signs of it yet - because they haven't been able to develop enough pitchers like Strasburg and Jordan Zimmermann, who allowed one run in seven innings last night. We've seen them spend 20 draft picks on pitchers the last two days, after sinking millions into pitching prospects in last year's draft, because they're still looking for a foundation of homegrown pitchers who can command games.
And the price they paid for Monday's bullpen meltdown, in which they lost a 13-inning game after knocking Tim Lincecum out in the fifth inning and getting seven one-run innings from John Lannan, is that they'll have to beat Matt Cain with Maya on the mound.
General manager Mike Rizzo is excited about some of the Nationals' late-round finds (Tom Milone, Brad Meyers, Brad Peacock, etc.), and in last year's trio of draft-deadline signees (Sammy Solis, A.J. Cole, Robbie Ray), the Nationals have some pitchers with higher ceilings than many of the ones in their current rotation. They could also get Strasburg back late this year, though spring training 2012 seems like a more realistic timetable at this point.
But if Strasburg's sensational debut was about anything, it was hope for a beleaguered franchise that had banked on homegrown pitching to be its pathway out of the gutter. Strasburg delivered it last year, and Zimmermann continues to bring it with the way he's pitched this year. Lannan, an 11th-round pick in 2005, has been a consistent presence in the rotation for the better part of 3 1/2 seasons. Strasburg, though, let the Nationals believe they didn't just have something competent, they had something dominant. And a year later, it's clear what a precious commodity that is.