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'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.

The Nats, partly because they watched rookie Jordan Zimmermann need elbow ligament replacement last season, are inclined to go slowly.

"You can't rush these guys. It's a mistake," Nationals principal owner Mark Lerner said. "Let Stephen learn to be a pro. Let him get hit around a little and earn his way up." Then, he added, "But that sure was fun, wasn't it?"

Assuming Strasburg dominates the minors for a dozen or so starts, mainstream baseball thinking would suggest he'll be at Nationals Park around midseason. With more than 300 innings at San Diego State, with Team USA and in the Arizona Fall League, Strasburg may have the equivalent of 50 minor league starts.

The large majority of the best power pitchers of the last 30 years, and almost all of the most imposing current pitchers, have made major league debuts, then started at least 15 games in a year, when they were only 19 to 22 years old. The very best ones come fast.

Among pitchers who fanned 185 men last season, these all fit that mold: CC Sabathia, Justin Verlander, Zach Greinke, Félix Hernández, Roy Halladay, Jon Lester, Josh Beckett, Javier Vázquez, Dan Haren, Josh Johnson, Yovani Gallardo, Ubaldo Jiménez and Clayton Kershaw.

Most aren't going to the Hall of Fame or close. Some have already had arm problems and come back. But, they're elite. And, in about a year, they are Strasburg's potential peer group. Look up their stats at ages 21 to 23. That's where he's probably headed.

Perhaps Colorado's Jiménez resembles Strasburg most in raw stuff. Jiménez can touch 100 mph, has a huge breaking ball and a punishing sinker. Unhittable? No, pitching is harder and subtler than that. Despite that arsenal, Jiménez has gone 12-12 and 15-12 in '08 '09, including 218 innings last year with 198 strikeouts.

"After Ubaldo shut us down last year, I told [Rockies Manager] Jim Tracy, 'We just signed a kid for $15 million with stuff just like that,' " Nats Manager Jim Riggleman said.

Don't hyperventilate too soon. Strasburg is frequently compared to three first-round pitchers: Roger Clemens (greatness), Ben McDonald (mediocrity) and Mark Prior (brilliance, then injuries). But the whole huge range of baseball possibility is still open, including just plain very good.

For players, watching Strasburg is a study in details. "He forgot to breathe sometimes, got excited, but he still kept the ball down, knee high. That's unusual. And good," John Lannan said. Catcher Wil Nieves was surprised that so many of Strasburg's fastballs had sinking action, even some that hit 97.

All-star Ryan Zimmerman, who broke in at 21, has always had maturity, but Strasburg's calm even impresses him.

"I'd have hated all the attention he's getting," Zimmerman said. "Every day there's 30 people at his locker, and he's saying the right things. And there have been a lot of times he could have said the wrong thing.

"We're happy for him. Now, he can just go back to playing."

Well, perhaps. That is, until his next debut -- the one at Nationals Park. Maybe it shouldn't come until after his 22nd birthday in July. But if Strasburg chews up spring training, then the minors, it's going to be hard to hold him back much longer.

What happens when he stops holding his breath?

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