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Anticipation Heats Up as Strasburg Readies for Arizona Debut

By Tracee Hamilton
Friday, October 16, 2009

PHOENIX

First, the bad news: Stephen Strasburg could do without humidity. (Already I like him!) He was in the instructional league in Florida earlier this month, and all in all, he prefers Arizona. After all -- say it with me -- it's a dry heat.

"Coming from Melbourne, it's pretty humid," Strasburg said on Thursday. "You come out of the hotel and your sunglasses fog up immediately. It's nice to be out in nicer weather. I like this desert scene with the little mountains and the sand and the cactus. It's a pretty cool atmosphere."

Who wants to tell the Nationals' $15 million prodigy that Washington gets a little sticky during the baseball months? Anyone?

He'll learn soon enough, next summer, in fact, because it's not possible that the Nats will be able to keep him down on the farm. There just doesn't seem to be a downside to Strasburg, who will make his Arizona Fall League debut on Friday night in Phoenix. Here is the measured opinion of Nats minor league pitching coach Paul Menhart, who is filling that role for the Phoenix Desert Dogs, Strasburg's team:

"The first impression I got is this kid is an ultimate professional," Menhart said. "He has great body awareness, he has a feel for numerous pitches, three or four pitches. He's a special kid. The upside is unknown right now but it's incredible."

Asked to rank Strasburg's pitches, Menhart said, "Obviously that fastball is well above average. It's probably his No. 1 pitch without a doubt.

"A lot of people don't know about this but his change-up, I think, is his second best pitch and he's rarely had to use it because he's got this 95 to 100 mph fastball. I've already told him and he knows that he's going to use that out here. He's stepped into a situation where these boys can hit. He's going to have to mix his pitches and he's not going to be able to just rely on the fastball. His breaking ball is also extremely good."

How about movement on the fastball?

"He has a straight four-seam fastball and he has a two-seam fastball that has some sink to it, which is going to put fits into hitters' ideas and plans," Menhart said, laughing.

Have you seen anyone with his stuff? After all, Menhart played in the majors three seasons.

"I don't think I ever have, to be honest with you," he said. "Even when I played there weren't too many guys that you would just say, 'Wow.' His demeanor is off the charts. Nothing seems to bother him. He's a quiet, confident young man. Who knows how far he can go?"

Strasburg himself is very careful to avoid making any predictions. Asked where he expected to be in 2010, he said: "I'm not going to put any expectations on myself. I just want to come out here every day and learn as much as I can. The pro game is different than college. You're pitching every five days instead of once a week. So that's a big thing I'm going to focus on, is getting my body in shape to endure a long season."

A long season in the humidity. Good plan.

I'm told the AFL is traditionally known as a hitters' league. The Nationals are trying to change that perception. In addition to Strasburg, they've sent three top young arms here -- Drew Storen, Josh Wilkie and Jeff Mandel -- in addition to first baseman Chris Marrero, shortstop Danny Espinosa and catcher Sean Rooney.

And they've sent Menhart here to guide them. Menhart will rave about Strasburg, absolutely. But he knows -- as the organization knows -- that Strasburg alone isn't going to propel you out of the NL East cellar and the ignominy of 100-loss seasons.

Menhart raves about Wilkie, a non-drafted free agent signed in 2006 out of George Washington. Wilkie started in the rookie league and spent a year at each level until last season, when he started at Class AA Harrisburg and jumped to Class AAA Syracuse, where he struck out 25 with only four walks in 22 1/3 innings.

Menhart calls Wilkie's change-up a "plus major league pitch. It's a pitch that has really just allowed him to get easy outs throughout every level. Every level he's pitched he's had success. He's a guy that is a legitimate option for the big leagues next year."

Then there's Storen, who had his first AFL save Wednesday night against Mesa. Storen was the 10th pick overall in the draft this June, and advanced from low A to high A to Class AA, posting 11 saves and a 1.95 ERA along the way.

"Drew is a full effort, 'I'm coming after you' kind of pitcher," said Menhart, who coached Storen at Potomac this summer. "He loves to compete and that is going to take him as far as it will. I think he's got a nice bright future ahead of him."

So can we anticipate a future of Strasburg starting, Wilkie pitching middle relief and Storen closing? Menhart grins.

"You know what, in an ideal world that wouldn't be too bad."

Mandel has been a starter, but the Nats will use him as a reliever here to see if he can make the transition.

"Mandel has a moving fastball that is quite special," Menhart said. "He gets a lot of groundball outs. He forces contact. His change-up is a pitch we need to work on while we're out here and his breaking ball is more of a little cut slider that we want to tighten up."

But of course it's Strasburg whom the autograph seekers wait to ambush by buses and dugout steps, holding their plastic-covered copies of Baseball America -- with him as cover boy -- Sharpies at the ready. It's Strasburg whom the opposing players stop to watch -- some surreptitiously, some openly, when he throws a bullpen session.

For all of the hype, his future Nats teammates show none of the typical bonus baby jealousy you might expect. Wilkie is an undrafted free agent who has to work in the offseason to make a living -- in other words, the polar opposite of Strasburg -- and here's his assessment: "He's probably one of the nicest guys I've ever met. Honestly, one of the nicest, just genuinely great guys."

Strasburg said yesterday he's learning to embrace the attention from fans, the media, even his fellow players, but it's clear he's not there yet. He's a quiet, almost taciturn young man who would love to throw every five days and spend the other four in anonymity. The chances of that happening: zero.

"It's unfortunate that a 21-year-old has to endure that but you know what?" -- and Menhart laughs as he says this -- "he asked for it by being that good, to be honest with you. Through this experience he will get used to it."

He'll get used to the humidity as well. Although it's rarely humid in D.C. in, say, October. Just something to think about.

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