- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 29, 2011

VIERA, Fla. | Stephen Strasburg can’t pitch. He throws - playing catch every other day in right field at the Nationals’ spring training home with head athletic trainer Lee Kuntz - and he takes pitchers’ fielding practice, and he works out.

But he can’t pitch. Not yet.

“Sure, we miss Strasy,” pitching coach Steve McCatty said recently before heading out to the field to supervise Strasburg’s session with Kuntz.

“There’s no doubt about it. But he’s not available, and tomorrow’s another day.”

So as the Nationals watch their prized right-hander make the slow journey back to health after the Sept. 3 Tommy John ligament-replacement surgery on his throwing elbow, it’s easy for the mind to wander toward the future.

It’s a future that could be exceedingly bright for a Nationals rotation chock-full of homegrown talent.

Should Strasburg’s rehab go according to plan, the potential top of the Nationals starting rotation in 2012 could be Strasburg, the raved-about Jordan Zimmermann (himself a Tommy John survivor) and Ross Detwiler - a former first-round pick who, McCatty said, has “made tremendous strides” since 2009.

“That was the plan when we took those three players,” said Nationals general manager Mike Rizzo. “Things have to fall into place for that to happen, but we’re confident we have the ability to do it.”

Add to that list John Lannan, another product of the Nationals farm system, who has won 26 games the past three years with a 4.10 ERA, and the potential addition of Yunesky Maya - the Cuban sensation McCatty called “possibly the last piece,” who signed a $6 million major league deal with the Nationals in 2010 but has struggled adjusting to the major league game.

A rotation with five legitimate starters from their own system?

“It would be great,” McCatty said. “But it takes time to build.”

That’s a fact Nationals fans know all too well after years spent watching the likes of J.D. Martin, Garrett Mock, Mike Bacsik and Jason Bergmann take the mound night after night. Even with Strasburg sidelined, the Nationals’ pitching depth is clearly better than it has been in the past. Case in point: Craig Stammen, a right-hander relied on to make 38 starts the past two years, was optioned to Triple-A Syracuse last week.

But when Strasburg stood on the mound that hot August day last year in Philadelphia shaking his right arm, that time was immediately set back. Instead of 2011 being Washington’s first full year with its ace atop the rotation and a fully healthy Zimmermann behind him, it immediately became a bridge year - a year to ponder the ‘what ifs’ of the future.

In that sense, Strasburg will always be the headliner. There’s no telling what kind of pitcher he’ll be when he does return to the mound, and no way to know if his 102 mph fastball will come with him. But in Zimmermann the Nationals have something of a fail-safe.

The low-key right-hander is now more than 18 months removed from his own surgery and held opponents scoreless in five of his first six starts of the spring, his fifth victim a very powerful Detroit Tigers lineup. He’s shown impressive control of his fastball, a pitch that sits around 94 mph, and worked his curveball and his slider in well - all without feeling pain in his surgically repaired right elbow.

“It’s just about Jordan Zimmermann just living up to his capabilities,” veteran starter Jason Marquis said. “Just doing what Jordan does. Jordan has the capability of being the top end of the rotation starter. He’s just got to get consistent.”

The Nationals chose three players ahead of Zimmermann in the 2007 draft, a drop many attribute to Zimmermann coming out of the little-known University of Wisconsin at Stevens Point. The first of those three was Detwiler.

But while Zimmermann made a steady ascent to the major leagues through 2007 and 2008, debuting on April 20, 2009, Detwiler burst onto the scene three months after he was drafted and couldn’t stay. Erratic control and a hip labrum injury that required surgery in February 2010 helped produce ugly major league numbers. In 2009, he was 1-6 with a 5.00 ERA, and in 19 major league starts, he’s 2-9 with a 4.74 ERA.

Detwiler’s been a different pitcher this spring, though, opening his direction to the plate, lengthening his stride and attacking hitters when he’s on the mound. The results have been impressive: 2.65 ERA, 12 strikeouts, three walks. One scout called him a surefire No. 3 starter in the Nationals’ rotation.

“He’s showing the stuff that he was drafted No. 1 for,” McCatty said. “The stuff is finally coming out that we expected him to do.”

At some point this season, late August perhaps, the Nationals could get a glimpse into what could be if three of their top draft picks since 2007 - Strasburg, Zimmermann and Detwiler - all find themselves in the major league rotation at the same time.

There won’t be any instant gratification, but the optimism is there.

“I’m excited about our rotation,” Rizzo said. “We think that we have a good group of guys in those three [Strasburg, Zimmermann and Detwiler] and another wave of guys coming after them. We feel good where we’re at.”

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