Big Day in NatsTown

It has finally arrived, the day of Stephen Strasburg’s debut, coincidentally occurring the day after the draft. So in one 24 hour period, the 2 best prospects in decades are making big news with the Nationals. The first was last night, with the signing of Bryce Harper. The second will be tonight, when Strasburg pitches in his first major league game.

Strasburg’s Time

Starting with the real big news of the day, tonight is maybe the second biggest game so far in franchise history, behind only the first day playing in DC. It’s Strasburg’s time to shine, he gets to pitch at home against the Pirates, and I will be there. I believe there are still tickets available on Stubhub, so if you’re not going, why not? Only 50,000 or so people will get to go to his first Major League game, I sure want to tell my grandkids I was there.

If you’re new to the whole Strasburg thing, and want to know what to look for, it’s pretty simple. He throws a near-100 mph fastball, and almost inexplicably he’s able to sustain that velocity late into games. It is strange seeing a pitcher throw 97 after 7 innings, but he can do it. His changeup is very good, too, and although it clocks in at the low-90s, faster than most DC starters’ fastballs, it is enough of a change in speed to fool hitters. But the consensus is that his curveball is his best pitch, and it practically induces ACL-tearing knee buckling. It moves close to 12 to 6, although maybe that better describes the amount of feet it moves than the positions on a clock face. It is one of those curveball’s that fans like me love to see – when you see it pitched, you recognize it as a breaking ball. That thing moves.

He’ll join the team at a time when they are last in the league in opponents strikeouts, by a wide margin. The team is in last place with 318 Ks, 28 behind the next team. The best team in the NL has struck out 450 hitters, and all but three teams have struck out at least 400. They are all pitch to contact guys, at least in the rotation, and he is a big change from anyone starting right now. It is probably a welcome relief among the weary fielders on the team to see someone get people to swing and miss.

There is a buzz about town for this start, and I’m not just saying that because I’m a Nationals’ fan. It’s on the cover of the Washington Post, with a headline screaming “Strasburg Comes to DC.” It’s on the radio, it’s on TV, it’s everywhere. Tonight’s game is going to be a party atmosphere, and I have a feeling that this will be one of the highest rated Nationals games on TV ever.

Then, on to the Signing

Even though they signed Harper last night, we probably won’t be hearing much about him for a few weeks. He won’t get signed until near the deadline on August 15th. If you don’t know about him, let’s just say he’s the best hitting prospect in a long, long time. He hit .443 with 31 HRs this year, his first year in college baseball, at the age of 17, using wooden bats when everyone else uses metal. He’s been a monster prospect for years, and not only did he not disappoint this year, he exceeded expectations. I believe that is him on the right.

The Nationals signed him as an outfielder, and Rizzo has said he will be an outfielder. Even though he’s played catcher up until now, this is probably a function of the Nats’ wanting his bat in the lineup sooner. Catchers take a long time to develop, regardless of how good they can hit. There was some thought by the baseball world that they could develop him as an infielder, and if that didn’t work he could move to the outfield later, but apparently the Nationals just want him in the outfield.

Meanwhile, many people are saying that since he’s only 17, you won’t see him in the majors for at least 3 seasons, maybe 2014. After all, he’s got to learn to hit in the minors, and he’s just so young. But not necessarily. I’ve heard comparisons to three players: ARod, Griffey, and Upton. If he is like any of them, you won’t have to wait too long. ARod was up at 18 years old – he lead the AL in batting average by the time he was 20. Griffey came up to the majors when he was 19 – he hit 22 HRs the next season. Justin Upton was in the Majors at the age of 19, last year at 21 he hit .300/.366/.532.

Personally, I believe the move to the outfield is with an eye towards these types of players. Rizzo may feel that if he’s in RF, he’ll come up as soon as the bat is ready. And he may look at the trio mentioned above and think that his bat may be ready as soon as early 2012, less than two years away. If you want to get a look at Harper, there’s an interview with him on ESPN right here. Interesting nugget – his favorite player is Mickey Mantle, and that’s who he’s always wanted to be like.

When I first wrote about the possibility of the two biggest prospects in decades going to the Nats a year ago, it coincided with a Sports Illustrated article on Harper, and I just want to remind everyone of some of those incredible quotes.

So good and so young is Bryce Harper, however, that he explodes baseball convention. He has hit the longest home run in the history of Tropicana Field, home of the Tampa Bay Rays, and he did so in January, at age 16, with a blast that would have flown farther than the measured 502 feet had it not smashed off the back wall of the dome. Still only 16, Harper stands 6’3″, weighs 205 pounds, has faster bat speed than Mark McGwire in his prime and runs so fast that he scored on wild pitches six times this season from second base. As a catcher he picks off runners from his knees, and when he pitches, he throws a fastball that has been clocked at 96 mph. He also does volunteer work, holds down a 3.5 grade point average and attends religious education classes nearly every morning before school.

If you are one of those people who are worried about his makeup:

It’s like he doesn’t take the game and the gift that he has for granted. He’s maximizing everything. You’re not worried about him going out there and living on talent alone. He’s working hard. He’s playing hard. He has a maturity about him, a toughness that says he’s going to work his butt off. It’s really refreshing to see these kinds of skills and talent, and the work ethic and dedication to go with it.

And finally, there’s this part:

Harper has been compared to Justin Upton, Alex Rodriguez and Ken Griffey Jr., each a freakishly advanced high school player and each the top overall pick of his draft. But Harper, say the baseball men who are paid to make such assessments, has the ability as a sophomore that the aforementioned trio had as seniors.

If there was ever a time to stink, the Nats may have picked the best two years to do it. The Nats’ GM probably summed it up best, “I can’t remember where back-to-back years where there’s two players that have separated themselves from the rest of the field,” Rizzo said. “In that respect, it is very, very unique. I think it’s a lucky time to have two No. 1 picks overall.”

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