- The Washington Times - Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Let the hype, the grandiose expectations and the radar gun hysteria begin. The Stephen Strasburg era in the District has officially begun.

In the worst-kept secret in baseball, the Washington Nationals selected the San Diego State phenom with the first pick in the 2009 MLB draft on Tuesday night, firing a shot of adrenaline into a beleaguered fan base as fast as the 20-year-old’s fastball reaches home plate.

Some have called the right-hander the best pitching prospect in a generation. He comes armed with a four-seam fastball that frequently touches 100 mph, a two-seamer in the low 90s and a swooping slider that most scouts rate higher than his fastball.

“He’s certainly in the team photo of the best [amateur players] I’ve seen,” said Mike Rizzo, the Nationals’ acting general manager. “I’ve seen a lot of them - Ben McDonald was there. I’ve seen Frank Thomas as an amateur player, Ken Griffey Jr., Alex Rodriguez, Chris Carpenter. There’s a long line of terrific prospects coming into the draft, and he’s certainly in that group.”

Strasburg, who went 13-1 with a 1.32 ERA at San Diego State and helped the Aztecs to their first NCAA tournament in 18 years, is a finalist for the Golden Spikes Award, given to the top amateur baseball player in the country, and was the only collegian to pitch on the U.S. Olympic team last summer.

Ever since the Nationals clinched the No. 1 pick with their last-place finish in 2008, fans have been buzzing about his arrival, with some showing up in custom Nationals jerseys with “Strasburg” and “37” on the back - the San Diego native’s number at San Diego State.

Combined with young pitchers like John Lannan, Jordan Zimmermann and Shairon Martis, Strasburg has Nationals fans dreaming of a rotation that could soon prove ready to excel.

“It’s tough to say right now [how quick I’ll reach the majors],” Strasburg said in an interview with MLB Network. “Right now, I’m just enjoying this time with my friends and family, and we’ll see what happens.”

He was the headliner of a pitching-heavy haul for the Nationals on the first night of the draft. The team, which also had the 10th selection in the draft because of its failure to sign first-rounder Aaron Crow last year, took Stanford right-hander Drew Storen with that pick in a bid to address one of its most glaring needs. The Nationals added University of California second baseman Jeffrey Kobernus in the second round and Georgia right-hander Trevor Holder in the third round.

Rizzo said the Nationals plan to keep Storen in the bullpen; the 6-foot-2 right-hander went 7-1 with seven saves in 28 appearances for Stanford this season. Storen, who was a rare draft-eligible sophomore, was projected by many to go in the later half of the first round, so he’s expected to sign a bonus at or near the MLB slot recommendation for the 10th pick. That would be a sharp contrast from Crow, who was projected to go in the top five this year but slipped to Kansas City at No. 12 because of concerns about his signability.

The Nationals inquired about drafting Crow again, but Rizzo said Tuesday night the former Missouri right-hander did not sign the waiver the Nationals would have needed to do so.

Storen could turn out to be a nice replacement, though. He’s expected to reach the big leagues quickly and could be the team’s closer sooner than later.

“I really don’t have a preference [between starting and closing],” Storen said. “If the Nationals want me to be a starter, I can do that. If they want me to be a closer or middle relief guy, I can do that, too. If I’m pitching, I’m happy.”

As for Strasburg, his progression to the majors will be dictated by how soon he signs. And on Tuesday night, there was no reason to bet on that happening quickly.

Rumors have floated all spring of Strasburg’s adviser, Scott Boras, looking to set a record for the largest signing bonus given to a draft pick. The record is the $10.5 million the Cubs gave to Mark Prior in 2001. Boras could seek a guaranteed six-year deal for Strasburg worth as much as $50 million, though the Nationals have said they won’t upset the structure of the signing process for one player.

If there’s any sign of encouragement for the Nationals, it’s that Rizzo signed several Boras clients while he was the Arizona Diamondbacks’ assistant GM, and the two are believed to have a cordial relationship. Boras also spoke highly of the Nationals after their pursuit of free agent first baseman Mark Teixeira last winter.

Rizzo said he already had placed a congratulatory phone call to Boras on Tuesday night and added the pitcher was “elated to be drafted by the Washington Nationals” when Rizzo talked to him.

Even if he signs quickly, there’s no guarantee he’ll get to the District in time to help the Nationals this season. Rizzo reiterated Tuesday that “no player is major league ready” coming out of the draft, and it’s believed the team would bring Strasburg to the majors this year for only an isolated appearance or two.

“There’s a long way to go,” team president Stan Kasten, who was not made available to the local media, said in an interview with MLB Network. “We’re not expecting him to come in as a savior.”

Savior though he might not be, Strasburg at least delivered some hope to the Nationals on Tuesday night.

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