By Adam Kilgore
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, March 21, 2010; D01
VIERA, FLA. -- At 8:19 Saturday morning, Stephen Strasburg walked to the doorway of the Washington Nationals clubhouse in Space Coast Stadium and retrieved an empty blue duffel bag. Another identical one, stuffed with socks, spikes and shirts, already rested at the foot of his locker. He put down the empty bag and packed a jacket and spandex shorts. Strasburg filled the bag himself until he placed the final items inside, a Bible and three black baseball gloves.
Even rookies with the nickname "Jesus" must clean out their own locker. It was Strasburg's final lesson, for now, as a major leaguer. The inevitable became official Saturday morning when the Nationals informed Strasburg he will begin the year in the minor leagues, in Class AA Harrisburg. Strasburg will remain teammates with closer Drew Storen, the Nationals' other 2009 first-round pick whom the Nationals reassigned to the minor league camp so he can start the year in Harrisburg.
In his final morning, without throwing a pitch, Strasburg one last time flashed his competitive nature. It became clear that Strasburg had convinced himself, despite the mounting evidence against it, that he had a chance to make the team. The news genuinely disappointed him. He never assumed, as most everybody else had, that his development necessitated time in the minor leagues.
"No," Strasburg said. "Going into it, I felt like I had an opportunity, I had a chance. That's how everybody feels when they come into big league camp. That's the reason why you're here, to try to make the team. There was always that thought in my head.
"I'm trying to go out there and do my thing. It's beyond my control. There's no point worrying about it. It doesn't matter what I think or how I feel. They're going to stick to their plan."
Strasburg did not sound bitter. Manager Jim Riggleman said, "It's a little bit of safety first."
The Nationals want to ensure Strasburg will be a major leaguer for good the moment he steps on a big league mound, that they ultimately have no regrets about rushing Strasburg. General Manager Mike Rizzo believes a prospect who moves from amateur baseball to the big leagues is bound to fail.
"This," Rizzo said, "is a prized asset."
Strasburg is also, simply, the best they've got. If the Nationals wanted only to maximize their win total this season, then he would head north and probably pitch opening day. The idea of Strasburg helping the Nationals from Day 1 is tantalizing.
"It's not an easy decision," Rizzo said. "It's definitely not an easy decision. But we can't be short-sighted. We have to look what's best for the organization long term. That's dictated by what's best for Stephen Strasburg's development."
Rizzo said last week financial matters will not determine Strasburg's immediate future, but the Nationals stand to save millions by keeping Strasburg in the minors to begin the regular season. If they delay Strasburg's debut until late May, the Nationals will halt for one year Stasburg's eligibility for arbitration and free agency.
"It's a business," Strasburg said. "That's all I got to say. It's not the perfect situation. But it's their decision."
Certainly, Strasburg's spring training performance cemented his can't-miss status. Strasburg allowed two runs in nine innings, striking out 12 batters and walking one while zipping fastballs in the high-90s, as advertised. He weathered a media barrage and, by the end, grew more comfortable with the constant spotlight. "I don't think the camp could have gone any better for him," Riggleman said.
The question now becomes, when will Strasburg first pitch for the Nationals? Stat lines alone will not determine his promotion, Rizzo said, but performance will be a factor. He may or may not pitch for Class AAA Syracuse before coming to the Nationals. His first minor league start, if he continues to pitch every fifth day, would come April 8 in Altoona, Pa. But that schedule would also dictate he pitch four of his first five games away from home, an unwelcome blow for the Senators' bottom line. By delaying Strasburg's first minor league outing until April 10, still in Altoona, the Nationals could ensure three of those starts would be home games -- and boost attendances for Harrisburg.
More immediately, Strasburg's current schedule will have him pitch April 3, the day the Nationals host the Red Sox in an end-of-spring exhibition at Nationals Park. The Nationals have not ruled out having him start that game, Rizzo said.
For now, Strasburg could only reflect on his time with the Nationals. He identified his high point as the day third baseman Ryan Zimmerman invited Strasburg, his wife, Nationals pitcher John Lannan and a few others to come with him on a trip to Orlando, just up I-95. They were going to Disney World.
"We got treated like VIPs," Strasburg said. "He's got some sort of connections. But, you know, the baseball was great, too."