Strong-Arm Tactics

Collin Balester
Top pitching prospect Collin Balester, 21, is 2-2 with a 4.13 ERA at Class AAA Columbus. (Toni L. Sandys - The Post)
By Barry Svrluga
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, May 6, 2008

There was a time when Randy Knorr, the manager of the Class A Potomac Nationals, would dread when his pitchers started a hitter with two consecutive balls. Any batter would know, right then, that a fastball was on its way, and he would likely be able to crush it.

"I wanted to pull the guys off the field," Knorr said yesterday. "I was afraid one of the fielders might get hurt."

Things have changed, not only at Potomac, but throughout the Washington Nationals' minor league system. Already this season, Knorr has sent three promising pitchers -- Jordan Zimmermann, Cory VanAllen and Zech Zinicola -- on to Class AA Harrisburg. That still leaves him with talented pitchers in his rotation, with more on the way. And that doesn't account for top pitching prospect Collin Balester, who at 21 already is pitching at Class AAA Columbus, a step away from the major league club.

The pitching in Washington's minor league system was, as recently as two seasons ago, laughed at. Now, it is respected.

"We've got the ability in fastball counts to throw fastballs by the hitters," Knorr said. "Talent-wise, arm strength, we've got guys who can pitch. Before, we couldn't put them away. Now, we have strikeout ability. I'm not worried about hitters squaring up balls and killing our fielders."

The pitching prospects throughout the Nationals' system are promising enough that General Manager Jim Bowden, asked to pick one player that might arrive in Washington later this summer, said he couldn't do it.

"I could give you half a dozen," Bowden said, "and I'd probably be right on all of them."

Though Balester, who is 2-2 with a 4.13 ERA at Columbus, is closer to the majors, the Nationals have shown they are not afraid to reward pitchers who perform well. Zimmermann, VanAllen and Zinicola are the latest examples. Last year, left-hander John Lannan began the season with Potomac -- and ended up in the majors.

"It was kind of crazy," Lannan said. "But I wouldn't change anything about it. I'm just glad I got the opportunity."

The pitchers currently on the move are trying to focus on their next step, taking on the prospect-rich Eastern League for Harrisburg. But VanAllen, for instance, was teammates with Lannan at Potomac last year. The two remain friends. VanAllen, a left-hander, knows that while he's in Harrisburg trying to improve, Lannan will make his 13th major league start Thursday in Houston.

"I think it'd be crazy for any of us to say we didn't pay attention to that and think about what happened with John last year," VanAllen said yesterday by phone. "I think the important thing to do is kind of stay focused on the present and control what we can control. John's situation shows that if you do that, the franchise will reward you. It's definitely run through my mind, though."

VanAllen, Zimmermann and Zinicola are coming at their promotions from different angles. VanAllen, 23, was a fifth-round pick from Baylor in the 2006 draft who went 4-10 with a 4.59 ERA in 24 starts with low-Class A Hagerstown and Potomac last season. But in spring training this season, Spin Williams, the Nationals' coordinator of minor league pitching, asked him how he felt about working on a slider.

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