As the Washington Nationals get set for Opening Day 2011, much of the attention in the clubhouse this afternoon still focused squarely on the long-term prospects for prosperity, meaning there was precious little elbow room available when Stephen Strasburg and Bryce Harper spoke shortly before taking part in NatsFest at Nationals Park.
Strasburg began his news conference in front of his locker, but as the media frenzy swelled to three and four rows deep, the proceedings moved to the open area in the middle of the clubhouse, where jockeying for position continued.
The hard-throwing right-hander is seven months into the approximately one-year recovery process from ligament replacement surgery in his elbow, and an ambitious timetable for him to pitch again in the big leagues is at the end of the this season. The reality is the Nationals probably won’t really require his services until next season, when the presumption is he would be the opening day starter on a club that has been remade significantly.
“Yeah, it’s definitely going to be tough,” Strasburg said of having to go back to Florida to continue rehab when the season starts in earnest. “I know the work I’m putting in now is going to let me be there next opening day, hopefully pitching it too.”
Strasburg had Tommy John surgery on Sept. 3 and threw a baseball for the first time following that procedure on Jan. 31. He’s now throwing in incremental distances from home plate until his elbow becomes durable enough again to start doing so from the mound. Once he reaches that point, only then can there be reasonable discussion as to when he’ll be back in the majors after a rookie season in which every his start became an event.
Last year Strasburg went 5-3 with a 2.91 ERA, allowing 56 hits and walking 22 in 68 innings before his arm gave out. He had 92 strikeouts, including 14 in his big league debut on June 8.
“The main part of that is to have him for the full season,” Manager Jim Riggleman said. “Whether he would have the opening day starter, or whether that would have played out, the main thing is certainly we’ll miss him. You’ve got to just put that aside and be happy that we’re seven months past that surgery, you know? Five more months to go, and a year is up, and then we make a call as to whether we pitch him or not, but a big part of his recovery is over, so we look at the glass as half full.”
As Strasburg works his way back to the major leagues, Harper is trying to get there for the first time. Supremely self-assured, the outfielder was the No. 1 overall pick in 2010 and is widely considered the best prospect in baseball.
But in the clubhouse today, he was just another young buck trying to fit in, even making light of the name plate on his locker that read: “Lost and Found.” Like Strasburg, Harper, 18, won’t be with the Nationals when they begin the regular season tomorrow against Atlanta. He instead will begin his journey to the majors in Class A Hagerstown.
There is some concern Harper could miss the minor league club’s opener on April 7 because of sprained left ankle, but in his typical no worries delivery, that possibility seemed distant on a day rife with optimism.
During spring training, Harper had to leave a minor league instrasquad game after spraining his ankle trying to beat out a single. He underwent X-rays later the day, but GM Mike Rizzo said at the time it was a mild sprain that wouldn’t require lengthy rehabilitation.
The moment Harper does step onto the diamond, he’ll command adoration befitting a can’t-miss prospect who figures prominently into the Nationals’ plans for many years.
“Every single game last year I had 5,000 people watching me,” Harper said. “It’s just another game. Nothing’s going to compare to me playing against Cuba in Mexico for the Pan-Am championship game. I’m just going to go out there and play as hard as I can, not worry about anything, not worry about what people think and try to play my game and play hard.”