'Not long for the minors': Could Stephen Strasburg be on the fast track?

Nats pitching phenom Stephen Strasburg warms up while catcher Ivan Rodriguez and coach Steve McCatty look on.
By Thomas Boswell
Wednesday, March 10, 2010

VIERA, FLA. From the box seats at Space Coast Stadium, you could see a huge piece of the Washington Nationals' future Tuesday. It is 6 feet 4, weighs 220 pounds, and it's coming at you fast. No, even faster than that. What Stephen Strasburg will become someday no one knows. It's what he is already that is the shock.

Ask Miguel Cabrera, the Detroit Tigers' cleanup hitter who fanned on a 98-mph fastball after buckling on a pair of 81-mph sliders. You could see that future, fantasize about it, in a pair of back-to-back change-ups that both hit 90 mph and dropped so sharply that the Detroit hitter could barely tick them foul.

And you could hear it in the words of crusty Detroit Manager Jim Leyland who summarized Strasburg's first exposure to major league hitters in just five words: "Not long for the minors."

Let's not kid ourselves: This is the start of a saga. There have certainly been similar tales in the last 30 years, but not many. Perhaps two dozen hurlers in that time have had the same general stuff, poise and command at age 21 that Strasburg showed in his spring training debut.

Before this game, Cabrera, who has had 100 RBI six straight seasons, said, "Let's see what he's got." Afterward, Cabrera said: "Great arm, great action, great mechanics. His fastball was jumping. . . . He's going to be good."

Strasburg got four groundouts on sinking fastballs clocked at 96 or 97. On the last pitch of two shutout innings, after allowing two singles, Strasburg threw a full-count curveball for a locked-up called strikeout. "He's got all the pitches," the Nats' Liván Hernández said. "That 3-2 curveball, that was big-league."

This Strasburg development project probably isn't going to take as long as we thought. Detroit's own starter was Rick Porcello, who went 14-9 as a 20-year-old rookie last year. Though just five months younger than Strasburg, the stellar Porcello was much less filled out and imposing. Scouts, who came assuming the pair might look equivalent in mound presence, were stunned.

The person least impressed with Strasburg was perhaps Strasburg. "It's all in the books now," he said, relieved. "It was really cool . . . a blast, absolutely . . . I thought I did pretty well. My command was not too good. My adrenaline was so high, I had to remember to breathe. It was the same in my first outing in high school and college. I'm a real rhythm pitcher. I hope I can be nice and smooth next time out."

Perhaps Strasburg's most appealing trait is his blend of embarrassment at the hype around him coupled with a willingness to accept it because it comes with the job -- and with the biggest amateur draft contract ever, by a full 50 percent.

"I can honestly say I don't think it's earned," Strasburg said. "I haven't really done anything at the pro level. There are guys here who have done a lot that don't get as much attention and maybe never will. It's kind of a shame. But it's out of my control."

After he left the game, Strasburg wouldn't leave the dugout. "I just want to sit here," he told pitching coach Steve McCatty. On days he pitches, many fans may feel the same, and for a long time.

After two years of Strasburg hoopla, including all the "best prospect ever" talk, Leyland expected a big fastball, but the quality and command of Strasburg's curveball "impressed me most." Of the sinker, he said, "It's electric." The Tigers' manager also noted Strasburg was so quick to the plate (1.0 seconds) with men on base that he may need to slow down to retain his best stuff. "He dropped off three or four miles an hour after that."

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