Nats See Pitching Growth On Farm

"We are knocking on the door with pitching. And let's be honest, it's the hardest thing to do," said team president Stan Kasten, left, with Nationals principal owner Mark Lerner. (By Jonathan Newton -- The Washington Post)
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By Chico Harlan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, July 18, 2008

Earlier this week, when a 22-year-old pitcher named Jordan Zimmermann finished his seventh and final inning in a game against the Bowie Baysox, the specifics of what just happened spread from a few witnesses to many followers. The information gained a charge, that of something vital and speculative -- a sport's answer to stock analysis -- zipping from a scouting director's BlackBerry to a general manager's inbox, all of it aimed to help answer one question: Is Zimmermann, now with Class AA Harrisburg, ready to pitch for the Washington Nationals?

In this game, Zimmermann, perhaps Washington's most promising minor league pitcher, had struck out nine, allowing just three hits. But the half-dozen scouts who peppered the five-row first level of Commerce Bank Park on Monday tuned to the more substantive measurements.

They noticed how Zimmermann's fastball hit 94 mph, and how it brushed the plate's edges. They noticed how his wind-up depends on a driving lower-body push, mechanics that make Harrisburg Manager John Stearns think of Hall of Famer Tom Seaver. They noticed how he cleaned up a first-and-third, no-out mess with a popup and a double play. When scouts see something that cannot be measured, they become most convinced of talent.

"When you need to get somebody out, can you do it?" said Washington scouting director Dana Brown, who watched the game from behind home plate. "You see that, like with Zimmermann, you see somebody very close to being major league ready, if not right there scratching at the surface."

After the game, just Zimmermann's 13th start in Class AA, Brown compiled a report dense with the kind of encouragement that largely explains the organization's improbable self-assuredness, unbroken by a noxious first half at the major league level. Because of injuries and underperformance, the Nationals begin the second half today with a 36-60 record, a 101-loss pace. Nationals Park, hailed for its sightlines, has provided a great view of baseball's worst team. Those within the organization, though, maintain a viewpoint based on a different perspective. Citing a stockpile of young pitching talent -- a collection those within the organization compare favorably to any other in baseball -- the Nationals see a rebuilding plan on track. Said team president Stan Kasten, "I'm as confident as I've ever been that we're on the way."

Ask those within the organization to gauge the minor league pitching talent and you'll hear a number between six and 10 -- as in, the number of future major league pitchers stashed between Class A and Class AAA. You'll hear Zimmermann's name every time. (Stearns, for one, calls him a potential future all-star, "a number two starter in the big leagues, if not a number one." Brown called the right-hander's outing on Monday "dominant at times.") You'll hear about last year's first-round pick, Ross Detwiler. You'll hear about fellow Harrisburg pitchers Cory VanAllen and Adrian Alaniz. You'll hear about current Class AAA Columbus pitchers Shairon Martis and Garrett Mock and Tyler Clippard.

To these players, the Nationals have tied their fate. More than any other factor, their development will determine whether Washington's teams in 2010 and 2011 fulfill management's vision. This means that Washington has bet on its own ability to assess baseball's most insecure asset.

Kasten knows this can work because he helped create the model the Nationals are trying to replicate. When with the Atlanta Braves (1987-2003), also as president, Kasten watched how the organization's pitching talent solidified into the foundation of a perennial division-winning team. Some of the Braves' top prospects, such as Tom Glavine, had careers remarkable for their steadiness. Some, such as Steve Avery, mixed fleeting brilliance with rapid decline. Others, like Dennis Burlingame, never reached the big leagues. Because even seemingly can't-miss pitchers sometimes miss, Washington -- in the last two years -- has stockpiled arms. This year, even with a dearth of minor league hitters, the team drafted college pitcher Aaron Crow in the first round. The idea being, you can always trade pitchers to acquire other needs; great pitching is the trump card.

"We are knocking on the door with pitching," Kasten said. "And let's be honest, it's the hardest thing to do. But we dedicated ourselves to it. Pure Branch Rickey: quality out of quantity. Just have more than anyone else if you focus on one thing. We obviously focused on pitching beyond any other position on the field, and because of that, we'll find the number we need." Ask around, Kasten then said: "Every team will say that's our strength."

Most teams tend to overvalue the players they have -- it's a built-in bias -- but interviews with a half-dozen executives and pro scouts who grade the Nationals for other clubs shed doubt on Washington's internal assessment. The scouts, granted anonymity in exchange for candor, agreed on this much: The farm system is drastically better than it was two years ago. But the improvement has been slow. Scouts tend to believe that Washington's system is flush with arms that might reach the majors, but almost none that will dominate there.

One scout, who called recently promoted Collin Balester the team's best pitcher -- "by far," he said -- added that "I wouldn't put him above a number three starter." Most view Mock and Clippard as fringe members of a quality starting rotation. One scout said that Detwiler, currently at Class A Potomac, where he's 5-5 with a 5.42 ERA, looks "broken" -- having regressed since leaving college.

"For me, there isn't anybody who knocks your socks off," one scout said.

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