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“When he came up, I remember people saying he didn’t have an out pitch,” Kasten said.

The most-heralded pitcher in the Atlanta organization at that time was a tall right-hander named Dennis Burlingame. He never made it to the majors.

“He was going to be the guy,” Kasten said. “And he got hurt. That’s all it takes. That’s the thing with pitchers. You just don’t know.”

Which explains why the Nationals have made a point not to put too much faith into any one of their young pitchers, but rather have gone out of their way to stockpile a half-dozen or more kids in the hopes that one or two of them pan out over time.

It’s the old Branch Rickey system. “Quality out of quantity,” the famed Brooklyn Dodgers GM would describe his method for developing players.

The Nationals believe they’ve built up a deep pool of pitching candidates over the last two years. From that quantity, they hope to find quality.

“It’s just like playing the lotto,” Acta said. “The more tickets you play, the better chance you have of winning.”

There are no shortage of intriguing possibilities within the Washington system.

There’s Balester, the lone top-tier pitching prospect remaining from the organization’s days in Montreal. There’s Colton Willems, a first-round draft pick in 2006. There’s Mock, the key pitcher acquired (along with Matt Chico) in the 2006 trade of Livan Hernandez.

And then there’s the Class of ‘07: Detwiler, Smoker and Jack McGeary. Three highly touted left-handers all selected early in last summer’s draft, which has since been ranked the majors’ best.

Given how precious a commodity left-handed pitching is, the Nationals still sometimes can’t fathom how they pulled off last summer’s draft heist.

“You got three of them in the same draft,” Bowden said. “You can go 10 years and not get three.”

Detwiler, the sixth overall pick from Missouri State, became the first member of the class to reach the big leagues when he earned a September call-up and pitched one inning of relief in Atlanta. Perhaps the most complete pitcher in the organization, the 22-year-old fits the profile of an ace.

Smoker and McGeary, both 19, face much-longer paths to the majors. McGeary actually is living a double life these days as a student at Stanford during the school year and then a Nationals farmhand during the summer.

So the organization clearly has a stable of young pitchers who could develop into Washington’s ace of the future. The problem: This organization has no ace of the present.

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