Swallow hard, Washington Nationals fans, or what's left of you. A long summer is about to get longer if acting general manager Mike Rizzo has his way.
Stephen Strasburg isn't coming to the nation's capital.
Oh, calm down. The Nationals still plan on selecting the 103-mph-throwing phenom from San Diego State with the No. 1 pick in the draft June 9. The prospect of him joining the team upon signing a contract is highly unlikely, said Rizzo, who does not expect any players from the 2009 draft to jump from college straight to the major leagues. While he didn't mention Strasburg by name, the implication was evident.
"I don't see that in this year's draft," Rizzo said. "It's such an acclimation process for a pitcher to go through, and it's so very, very difficult, I just can't see someone doing it."
So goes one of the potential bright spots as Washington continues its death march to 100 losses. The Nationals' lone attachment to relevance at the moment is Strasburg, whose triple-digit fastball inspires such great expectations for the 20-year-old that if he doesn't turn Gatorade into wine the first time he hits up a cooler in a major-league dugout, his apostles might cry.
The miracle must wait until 2010, unless some contractual chicanery demands a token September call-up. The Nationals will choose Strasburg regardless and pay him some ungodly sum – $20 million, or thereabouts, double the previous high for a drafted player. And it will take them from the draft all the way to the Aug. 15 signing deadline to hammer out a deal, because Strasburg's agent, Scott Boras, uses leverage like a vise. And by then, summoning Strasburg for marketing purposes would be the sort of stunt Washington wants to get past as it grasps for credibility.
No need for David Clyde redux.
Already this has been a trying year for a franchise riddled by mismanagement. The spring started with the news that 19-year-old prospect Esmailyn Gonzalez was actually Carlos Alvarez, a 23-year-old who falsified his identity and pocketed a $1.4 million signing bonus. That revelation, along with an FBI investigation into alleged skimming of bonuses from Latin American players that previous GM Jim Bowden denies, led to Bowden's resignation. Then Washington lost its first seven games. Now the Nationals have lost eight of nine, their bullpen so combustible it makes a radioactive atom look stable.
No matter what the Nationals do, their relief pitching conspires to ruin it. Happened again Monday, when the bullpen imploded after the first start of top prospect Ross Detwiler's(notes) career. Garrett Mock(notes) got one out before blowing the lead. Jesus Colome(notes) gleeked gasoline on it. Joel Hanrahan(notes), the deposed closer who reclaimed the job by having all four chambers of his heart still pumping, yielded the final three runs in a 12-7 loss to Pittsburgh.
Washington relievers are now 1-13 with a 6.68 earned-run average. They have blown 13 of 19 save opportunities, prompting Rizzo to take a Hattori Hanzo sword to his roster: Wil Ledezma(notes), gone, and Steven Shell(notes), cut, and Mike Hinckley(notes) and Saul Rivera(notes) and Logan Kensing(notes), all unemployed as well because of their late-inning foibles.
Rizzo tinkers because he must. Even if the Nationals would be a .500 team with a halfway decent bullpen – and thanks to their offensive might, they would – reality is that they're playing .300 baseball and the favorite to choose No. 1 again next year.
"I don't ever want this pick again," Rizzo said.
This year, he'll take it. Strasburg can bring balance to a wobbly franchise, complement Detwiler and Shairon Martis(notes) and Jordan Zimmermann and John Lannan(notes) next season to form the youngest rotation in the game, one replete with promise. Washington also chooses 10th overall this year – compensation for failing to sign last year's top selection, Aaron Crow – and the prospect of being the first franchise with two top-10 picks in a draft excites the scout in Rizzo.
"We're poised to be a long-term success," he said. "I know people get impatient. When you look at the Tampa Bays and the Diamondbacks, it takes time to build farm systems and quality inventory and do it the right way. You can try to fool the baseball gods with Band-Aids and other cosmetic things, but you have to think beyond that."
Like a few years down the road, when the world expects Strasburg to pitch on opening day and fill a Nationals Park that so often looks like a ghost town and make people forget about the franchise's insipid past. When the present is so bleak, it's fun to imagine.
So Rizzo does his share of fantasizing. He meets with Nationals president Stan Kasten daily to talk shop, and they envision a future in which the needle on manager Manny Acta's job security isn't perpetually tilting toward red, and the Nationals can patch their bullpen from within, and the franchise's grasp at consequence doesn't come from protracted negotiations with a kid who can't legally drink.
Forget the hullabaloo about the lack of success from pitchers chosen No. 1 overall. None of them tickled triple digits regularly with their fastball. Strasburg gives the Nationals hope, and if that was enough to get a president elected, surely it can enliven a franchise in such desperate need of a jolt.
"You get one chance at that No. 1 player, and hopefully you pick the right guy," Rizzo said. "With Ryan Zimmerman(notes) and Jesus Flores(notes) and Elijah Dukes(notes) and Lastings Milledge(notes), those are things to build upon and build around. You couple that with a good, deep rotation and an impactful draft we're going to have in '09, and you can see how things can get positive in a hurry."
Draft day is Rizzo's favorite of the year. He's in his domain, enormous boards full of player names surrounding him and scouts constantly weighing in with their opinions and the organization getting a dose of tabula rasa.
The slate is clean, the future beckons and the Nationals yearn to be relevant – for all the right reasons.