- The Washington Times - Monday, August 24, 2009

Stephen Strasburg did the meet-and-greets and grip-and-grins like a true D.C. insider. He signed autographs, posed for pictures, said all the right things and even may have kissed a baby or two.

And now he’s gone.

The Washington Nationals’ pitching phenom is on his way to Florida to start a four-week throwing program that will let the team know where he stands physically, prepare him for the Arizona Fall League and offer none of the pomp and circumstance the Nationals bathed him in during his extended introduction to the team, the city and the fans.

Strasburg likely won’t be seen in the District again until he makes his major league debut. That could be early next season, it could be in the middle of the year or it could be sometime in 2011.

At the least, it will be six months until Strasburg pitches in a spring training game for the Nationals. It’s conceivable he could make the rotation out of spring training next year - without a trade or a foray into free agency, it’s tough to see Washington finding five pitchers more talented than him - but that would mean he would reach the big leagues having never thrown a minor league pitch.

More probably, Strasburg will start the year in the minors and reach the big league rotation next summer if he’s having an easy time with minor league hitters. The Nationals have been extremely cautious with their young pitchers, and with an arm like Strasburg’s, there is even more pressure to manage talent of that level properly.

Whatever happens next spring with Strasburg, the key for Nationals fans is patience.

It’s a similar situation to what the Orioles went through with catcher Matt Wieters the past two years. Fans wanted to see the highly touted prospect in Baltimore the second after he signed, but general manager Andy MacPhail put together a meticulous plan that gave Wieters enough time at each minor league level that he wouldn’t have to go back once he was called up.

So far, it has worked; Wieters is hitting .264, though his on-base and power numbers have been underwhelming. But he has been solid enough that a minor league intervention hasn’t been in order.

Expect to see a similar plan for Strasburg. To be sure, there are things he needs to learn about pitching to professional hitters. His change-up needs to get better to give him three legitimate pitches and prevent hitters from sitting on his 100 mph fastball, which they’ll be able to hit if it’s straight.

Hall of Famer Tony Gwynn, Strasburg’s coach at San Diego State, said the 21-year-old will have to throw more strikes and pitch to contact more in the majors than he did in college, and there are plenty of times when Strasburg’s fastball sits high in the strike zone.

If he needs a few months or even a season in the minors to learn, so be it. The Nationals should be better next season, but they’re probably not going to be contending for any titles. It’s a more feasible possibility in 2011, when they’ll have Jordan Zimmermann back from Tommy John surgery, a farm system that has had another season to flood the major league roster with talent and possibly a few free agent additions.

The Nationals aren’t going to pay Strasburg $15.1 million to sit in the minors for long, but they’ll be careful enough that his salary - and his arm - won’t be wasted once he’s in the majors. Third baseman Ryan Zimmerman summed it up well. The No. 4 pick in 2005 was in the majors by the end of that season, but he has had time to see how rare it is to excel quickly.

“I don’t think it’s hard for us [to keep it in perspective]. I think it might be hard for fans,” he said. “I think the draft, and the amount of money these kids are getting - not that it’s a ton more than what I got or anyone else got - but a lot of the players in the draft have gotten to the big leagues real quick. It’s not easy. It’s a quick learning curve.

“I don’t doubt that he can do it - I certainly believe that he probably can - but you can’t expect it of anyone.”

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