By Thomas Boswell
Wednesday, March 10, 2010; D01
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."
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?