- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 27, 2008

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.

Collin Balester. Ross Detwiler. Garrett Mock. Josh Smoker. John Lannan. Tyler Clippard.

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.

“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.

When the Nationals debut their new ballpark on national television Sunday night, they’ll most likely be sending a 30-year-old journeyman named Odalis Perez to the mound. Perez, while a serviceable big-league pitcher, wouldn’t fit anyone’s description of an ace.

But such is the current state of the Washington rotation. Team officials hoped to give the ball on Opening Night to either Shawn Hill or John Patterson, but both right-handers’ lingering injury troubles put an end to those plans.

Hill, whose trademark sinker can be virtually unhittable at times, hasn’t been able to overcome tightness in his right forearm and will open the season on the disabled list. The club hopes he’ll be ready within a couple of weeks, but given Hill’s injury history — surgeries on his right elbow, left shoulder and right forearm — there are no guarantees anymore.

Patterson, too, was capable of dominating opposing hitters and put it all together in 2005 to do just that for the Nationals. But his career has been derailed time and again by injuries, and after making only 15 combined starts the last two seasons and then struggling to reach 85 mph with his fastball this spring, the club decided enough was enough. Patterson, last season’s Opening Day starter, was released less than a year later.

Even so, executives around baseball expected another team to snatch up Patterson before long, hoping to catch lightning in a bottle with a right-hander high on talent but seemingly doomed to be hurt.

“Certainly there’s always risk,” Bowden said upon announcing the Patterson release. “We all saw what happened with Chris Carpenter in Toronto when they finally cut the ties and he went on to win a Cy Young [in St. Louis] and got the team to the World Series. Nothing is ever for sure in baseball.”

No, there are no guarantees in this sport, certainly not when it comes to young pitchers. But it’s the Catch-22 of building an organization: As difficult as it is to develop pitchers, you can’t win without them.

Which is why the Nationals were cautiously optimistic as they scanned those bullpen mounds in Viera, Fla., this spring and saw promising young pitcher after promising young pitcher.

For a franchise that has spent years trying to find an ace, that was a beautiful scene.

“That’s the clearest testimony we can point to of this organization accomplishing what we’ve been trying to do,” Kasten said. “Whatever happens up here in Washington with our rotation, we know there’s another wave on its way. It’s a very exciting time for us.”

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