- The Washington Times
Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Giant displays along the walkway from South Capitol Street into Nationals Park commemorate important years in D.C. baseball history.

There’s 1859, when the Washington Nationals baseball club was formed.

There’s 1924, of course, the year the Washington Senators won the World Series.

There’s 2005, the year baseball returned to the District after a 33-year absence.

Should the Nationals make room for 2009, the year the club signed Stephen Strasburg?

Judging just by the hoopla, this should be an important year in the history of D.C. baseball.

If Strasburg is not the second coming of Walter Johnson, there are going to be some disappointed people - the fans whose hopes were raised by the hype and the record money awarded by the Lerner family to a kid who has never thrown a pitch in the major leagues.

If you believe those who know Strasburg - and those who know baseball - this kid is unlike any other in recent years. And he has the head to match the talent.

“He is the real deal, baby,” Davey Johnson told me when the Nationals drafted Strasburg more than two months ago.

Johnson, the former Mets and Orioles skipper, knows pitching better than any manager I’ve covered, and he knows Strasburg and his major league potential better than anyone but Tony Gwynn.

Gwynn, of course, coached Strasburg at San Diego State.

Johnson managed Strasburg on last year’s Olympic team, and he raved about the young hurler, just as he once raved about a young stud he had in the Mets’ minor league system named Dwight Gooden.

“As a pitcher, the only thing you look for: quality of pitches at a major league minimum, command and poise,” Johnson said. “Dwight had that early, just like Strasburg has that. As far as I am concerned, he could pitch for Washington right now.”

The question then becomes whether Strasburg will be pitching for Washington two or three years from now or whether Dr. James Andrews sees him more than Nationals fans.

Pitching arms are fragile. Nationals fans saw this firsthand recently with the organization’s top pitching prospect, Jordan Zimmermann, who now is facing Tommy John surgery.

The experience of Mark Prior also is presented as evidence of the risk of investing in young hurlers. The former Cubs phenom set the previous record for a draftee contract at $10.5 million in 2001. He now is out of baseball, released by the San Diego Padres three weeks ago after a minor league stint.

Elbow and shoulder problems marred Prior’s career, but that’s not the blueprint for all pitching prospects. Former Chicago White Sox ace Jack McDowell suggested Prior’s problems were related to steroid use. Five years later, that is not so hard to believe.

We should assume, for now, given the level of testing in college and the Olympics, that this is not an issue for Strasburg.

But as Hyman Roth told Michael Corleone, “This is the business we have chosen.”

Players cost money. Pitchers cost money. There are high risks involved. If you don’t want to take those risks, go buy an Atlantic League team or stick to real estate development. No one cares a hoot what you do when you run an office building.

Nationals fans also should consider this: Whether Strasburg is great or a bust, he will be in the District for only six years. Then he will become a free agent because Scott Boras’ clients always become free agents. It’s standard operating procedure.

That would occur in 2015 - not a year you will see highlighted on the walkway leading to the ballpark.

So enjoy the next six years - the Strasburg era.

• Thom Loverro can be reached at tloverro@washingtontimes.com.

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