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Larry Stone gives his take on a wide array of baseball issues and weighs in about the Mariners, too.

February 23, 2010 at 11:55 AM

Stephen Strasburg already opening eyes in Nats’ camp

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That’s Stephen Strasburg throwing a bullpen session to Ivan Rodriguez today at Nationals camp in Viera, Florida. It was great seeing a future Hall of Famer up close — and Pudge wasn’t bad either.

Rim shot.

Seriously, Strasburg just has that indefinable quality of greatness. OK, maybe it can be defined — a 103 mph fastball is a good place to start. But his mechanics are so smooth, he seems to have a good command of his breaking pitches, and a good head on his shoulders. Today was his second bullpen session, and he was popping the ball right into the mitt of Rodriguez, who had never seen him pitch before.

“What I see for a minute was great,” Rodriguez said afterward. “The kid is pretty amazing. It’s only the first time I catch him. I need to keep catching him, and I’d like to see him in games pitching. But as far as the control, he’s right there. Fastball, breaking ball, changeup, they’re all for strikes. If he keeps doing what he’s doing, he’s going to be all right.”

Here’s a picture of Strasburg and Rodriguez consulting after the session, with pitching coach Steve McCatty looking on:

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Manager Jim Riggleman has indicated that the Nationals are leaning toward starting Strasburg in the minors, which is wise, considering he’s yet to throw his first professional pitch, other than Arizona Fall League. But those around the team would be surprised if he’s not in their rotation by June.

“For his size, he’s got such a great delivery,” said John McLaren, the Nats’ bench coach, who watched the bullpen session. “Bob Boone (a Nationals’ executive) and I were trying to figure out some of best deliveries we’ve seen over the years. Tom Seaver, of course, comes to mind, and of late Mark Prior. Stephen has got such great natural ability, but he’s also got such great technique and great mechanics.

“He has a great ceiling. We’re extremely excited about him, and looking forward to seeing him break in whenever he does. He’s extremely special. I never like to compare a guy, because it’s unfair to the guy you’re comparing him to, for one thing. He might have won 300 games, and now you’re comparing him to a guy that’s never thrown a pitch in the big leagues. I just think with his natural talent, he has a chance to be a real good pitcher, and then we’ll make comparisons after that.”

Strasburg admitted he had a little jolt when he found out that his catcher today would be Rodriguez, who signed as a free agent during the winter.

“It was a little nerve-racking, at first, when I realized I was throwing to a future Hall of Famer,” he said. “I was like, just don’t throw one at his ankle first one. Sure enough, I did. He’s a great catcher. He was really working with me out there, helping me locate my pitches and work both side of the plate. Just from that short bullpen, I really learned a lot from him. Hopefully I can throw to him again soon.”

The Nationals will be keeping a close eye on Strasburg and limiting his innings this season, trying to ensure that their prized property doesn’t get overworked. While the team should be much better, they know this is unlikely to be a contending season. The main goal with Strasburg is to get his feet wet in the big leagues and position him to be a mainstay for what they hope is their turnaround in subsequent years.

“If I can keep up with my workouts during the season, usually my arm feels great,” Strasburg said. “It’s getting your work in when you’re not throwing. Your arm is like a bank. You take so much out of it, you have to do the work outside to put stuff back in. You really have to stay on top of your work.”

If he does that, Strasburg will have plenty of opportunity to take withdrawals — the green kind — from the bank.

The Nationals camp is teeming with ex-Mariners, from Shawn Estes, who is making a comeback at age 37, to Ron Villone, to Mike Morse, to Jamie Burke, to Miguel Batista, to Eddie Guardado, who decided not to retire after all. Tyler Walker, who was in Seattle camp last year, is here, as is Jerry Owens, who played in Tacoma.

And, of course, Riggleman and McLaren, two former Mariner managers who are here in a reversal of their Seattle roles — Riggleman as manager this time with McLaren as his bench coach. Regardless of how their Seattle tenure worked out — and both have heartfelt regrets about that — they are two of the classiest guys I’ve encountered in all my years covering baseball. It was great talking to them at length today about their Seattle days and what lies ahead in Washington. That’s my column for Wednesday’s paper, and I need to get to work on it. I’ll blog some of their comments later in the day.



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