Jim Bowden stood behind the bullpen mounds at the Washington Nationals’ training facility this spring and looked across a row of talented young pitchers warming up over the course of an hour.
None of those prospects were likely to make the Nationals‘ Opening Day roster, at least not in 2008. But Bowden doesn’t think purely in terms of the immediate present these days. He can’t help but think ahead to 2009 or 2010 and wonder which pitchers from that group will be toeing the rubber at Nationals Park and leading this franchise toward its goal of winning a championship.
“We’ve got some pretty good choices here,” Bowden said. “And if one or two of them don’t do it, we’ve got other options, we’ve got other choices. We’re in a much better position than we were last year.”
And that’s no accident.
Since undertaking a massive overhaul of their minor-league system two years ago, the Nationals have emphasized pitching above all else. They’ve used top draft picks on arms. They’ve traded away veteran position players for minor-league hurlers. They’ve signed a horde of teenage pitchers from the Dominican Republic.
All of it with a single purpose in mind: To find and develop the future ace of Washington’s major-league staff, something this organization desperately needs.
“Whew, that’s probably on top of the list,” manager Manny Acta said. “In order for you to go all the way, you’re going to need a No. 1 [starter] and a No. 2. When it comes to the playoffs, that’s how you win games. Look at every team that goes all the way. That’s important. That’s at the top of the list.”
Of course, it’s easier said than done. There may be no more difficult task in professional sports than developing an ace. Scores have tried. Only a few have succeeded.
Why is it so difficult? Why can’t scouting directors and GMs correctly identify which 21-year-old pitcher is going to be the next Roger Clemens and which one is going to be the next Todd Van Poppel?
Because there are so many variables involved. Health. Mental makeup. The ability to throw breaking balls for strikes. The ability not to be fazed by big-league hitters.
And because there’s no one formula to becoming a big-league ace. Some of the game’s greatest were power pitchers in the mold of Clemens and Nolan Ryan. Others dominated because of their ability to throw with pinpoint precision, a la Greg Maddux and Jamie Moyer. Still others win because they can make the ball dart left, right and down like Brandon Webb and Mariano Rivera.
“People have been at this 107 years and still haven’t figured out a perfect science to who’s going to be successful as a pitcher,” Nationals team president Stan Kasten said.
Kasten knows a thing or two about developing pitchers. His Atlanta Braves teams of the early 1990s won primarily because of a starting rotation that included Maddux, Tom Glavine, John Smoltz and Steve Avery.
But that’s not necessarily how the Braves figured it would work out back then. Kasten can’t help but laugh now as he thinks back to his farm system of the late 1980s and how few thought Glavine would ever develop into a front-line starter.