VIERA, Fla. - Stephen Strasburg was sent to the minor leagues Saturday by the Washington Nationals, who told baseball's top pitching prospect he needs to slow down his delivery from the stretch in order to speed up his arrival in the majors.
"I'm not a believer that a player can come from amateur baseball and step right into the major leagues," Nationals general manager Mike Rizzo said. "I've seen terrific prospects attempt it and the failure rate is too great. This is a prized asset."
The Nationals optioned the 21-year-old Strasburg, the top overall pick in June's draft, to Double-A Harrisburg. Easily the best pitcher in spring training for Washington, Strasburg got the news when he reported to Space Coast Stadium the morning after his most impressive spring outing.
Strasburg struck out eight St. Louis batters in four innings Friday night in his third spring start. He allowed two first-inning home runs, then settled down and took command.
Displaying a fastball that reached 98 mph and a slider-curve hybrid that hitters had trouble reading out of his hand, Strasburg went 1-0 with a 2.00 ERA this spring, allowing eight hits and one walk with 12 strikeouts in nine innings.
He won the Golden Spikes Award as the top player in college baseball last season for San Diego State as a junior. A 6-4 righthander, he was 13-1 with a 1.32 ERA. He had 195 strikeouts in 109 innings
The No. 1 selection in the June draft, Strasburg agreed to a major-league contract with a signing bonus of $7.5 million and annual salaries of $2 million in 2010, $2.5 million in 2011 and $3 million in 2012. He also gets a prorated share of the minimum major-league salary of $400,000 this season.
That's the most guaranteed money since 2001, when pitcher Mark Prior received a five-year, $10.5-million contract after he was selected second.
"It's all about confidence - confidence in the pitches, confidence going out there. That's the bottom line," Strasburg said after clearing out his locker and packing his equipment bag. "The knock that people have on me is that I don't have experience, and you're only going to get experience with time."
Said manager Jim Riggleman, "What he did out there just verified what everybody had been saying . . . He did everything you wanted him to do. I don't think camp could have gone any better for him."
The only flaw the Nationals saw was Strasburg's propensity to rush his delivery out of the stretch. Detroit Tigers manager Jim Leyland said after watching Strasburg that his velocity dropped several miles an hour when he had runners on base, making it easier for hitters to catch up to his fastball.
"If they tell me what to do, I'm going to do it," Strasburg said. "Sometimes it won't make sense, but more times than not, it's going to work out in the long run. I trust what they're doing with me."
When Strasburg will make his big-league debut remains to be seen. The Nationals led the majors with 103 losses last season.
Keeping Strasburg in the minors until late May or early June could save the Nationals a sizable sum of money because it would delay his eligibility for salary arbitration and free agency.
The Nationals' rotation is unsettled past Long Island's John Lannan, the presumed Opening Day starter, and righthander Jason Marquis, a free-agent acquisition. Lannan is a lefthander from Long Beach; coincidentally, Marquis also has Long Island roots. He was born in Manhasset and grew up on Staten Island.