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June 14, 2010

On the Beat

Monday Update

by John Perrotto

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CLEVELAND – Deep down, Stephen Strasburg had to enjoy the past week. He made a dazzling major-league debut with the Nationals, then won his second start as well while becoming the talk of baseball. The 21-year-old right-hander even read the Top 10 list on Late Night with David Letterman.

Yet, if Strasburg is enjoying what has to be the hyped debut in major-league history, he is doing a good job of keeping it deep down inside. He raised his record to 2-0 on yesterday afternoon as the Nationals beat the Indians 9-4 to cap his amazing week. However, when asked to sum what a great week it had been, he responded without even a hint of a smile that "it was just like any other week, and now I've got to get ready for my next start." That being said, we certainly don't have to worry about Strasburg partying himself right out of the game at an early age.

Strasburg's response can be interpreted one of three ways: 1) as trying to be a humble rookie in order to defer to the veterans, 2) as being condescending with the media, or 3) being so extremely focused on his pitching that he has failed to see the big picture he has painted in becoming both a National and national sensation.

Condescending can be scratched off the list, because Strasburg is polite and everyone in the Nationals' organization raves about him being a good person. Deferential is also out, because a player this talented and being a good guy does not have to worry about incurring the wrath of any disgruntled veterans.

Thus, the answer can only be great focus. Nationals manager Jim Riggleman and catcher Ivan Rodriguez both marvel at how unaffected Strasburg is by all the hullabaloo that has accompanied his arrival in the major leagues just a year after being the first overall selection in the first-year player draft from San Diego State and signing a draft-record $15.1 million contract.

"Whatever the expectations are of Stephen, I know that they will have no affect on his performance," Riggleman said. "Regardless of whether he pitches a good game or a bad game, trying to live up to expectations and any other outside influences is not going to play a part. I may be oversimplifying that a little bit, but all the attention and publicity really doesn't concern him. His mind is on pitching and the task at hand."

"He's a real quiet guy, and so far he's been totally focused with his preparation for his next start every five days," Rodriguez said. "He works very hard and everyone notices it. He's a great guy and a great teammate. He has the respect of everybody in our clubhouse."

Strasburg was not quite as dominant as in his debut last Tuesday night when he struck out 14 batters and did not issue a walk in seven innings and 96 pitches in his victory over the Pirates at Nationals Park. This time, he needed 95 pitches to get through 5 2/3 innings and walked five.

However, he also allowed only one run on a solo home run by Travis Hafner in the second inning in which the designated hitter reach down and golfed a 99 mph down-and-in fastball over the right-field fence on a line drive. That was also one of just two hits Strasburg allowed while striking out eight. Thus, through two starts, he has given up three runs and six hits in 12 2/3 innings with five walks and 22 strikeouts.

"He pitched better in this game than the line score will show," Riggleman said. "He had to deal with some things."

While Strasburg may have an almost superhuman ability to block out off-the-field distractions, he was bothered by the mound at Progressive Field. He had trouble with his landing spot because of a hole that Indians starter David Huff had dug during his 5 2/3-inning stint. Twice, Strasburg requested home plate umpire Brian O'Nora ask the grounds crew to fill in the hole. Afterward, Strasburg was almost apologetic that he let something penetrate his laser-like focus.

"I was just slipping a little bit," Strasburg said. "There are going to be things like that happen in a game, and I can't let it bother me like I did. I wasn't able to make the adjustment as well as I wanted to and that was disappointing, but at least I was able to keep us in the game."

Strasburg did that and more and capped off what had to the be the biggest week for the franchise since the Expos moved from Montreal to Washington just before spring training began in 2005 and became the Nationals. His two victories have caused the biggest buzz in the capitol since the Obama inauguration and came after the Nationals began the week by selecting Bryce Harper with the first overall draft pick, a 17-year-old catcher/outfielder with such prodigious power in his bat that he figures to make a "Strasburgian" impact on the major-league lineup in a few years.

The Nationals' high-water mark came in their first season in Washington when they went 81-81. They haven't had a winning season and endured 103 losses in 2008 and 102 losses in 2009.

However, there is reason to believe things are getting better, as the Nationals are a respectable 31-33 this season. In addition to Strasburg, they have a number of key players 26 or younger, including third baseman Ryan Zimmerman, outfielder Roger Bernadina, left-handed starter John Lannan, right-handed starter Luis Atilano, closer Matt Capps, and right-handed set-up men Tyler Clippard and Drew Storen.

Another youngster the Nationals are banking on, right-hander Jordan Zimmermann, began an injury rehabilitation assignment at High-A Potomac last week as he tries to come back from Tommy John surgery. The Nationals also figure to add rehabbing right-handers Jason Marquis and Chien-Ming Wang to their rotation, possibly before the All-Star break. All in all, there are a lot of positive developments for a team that was 26-61 last year at the All-Star break when Manny Acta was fired as manager and Riggleman was promoted from bench coach.

Yet, Riggleman does not allow himself to get too excited yet. His team had lost nine of its last 14 games before yesterday, falling into last place in the National League East.

"We're certainly going in the right direction, but we haven't reached the point where we can start drawing assumptions about the future yet and say we are where we want to be," Riggleman said. "We haven't played our best baseball the last couple of weeks. Our guys know that; they know they're capable of playing better. Getting back to respectability has been a good step but we, as an organization, want to do a lot better than that."

---

Moving A.J. Hinch from farm director to manager when Bob Melvin was fired last season, even though the 34-year-old had never managed a game, was unconventional. And it seems as though Diamondbacks general manager Josh Byrnes has been under fire for the move ever since making it.

The heat has intensified this season, as the Diamondbacks are last in the NL West with a 26-38 record. Owner Ken Kendrick and team president Derrick Hall have said they feel a roster shakeup is necessary, and have made no secret that Byrnes and Hinch are also being evaluated. Byrnes, though, believes he should be under more scrutiny than Hinch because one-quarter of the Diamondbacks' payroll is being spent on outfielder Eric Byrnes and right-hander Brandon Webb, neither of whom has played a game for the Diamondbacks this season. Byrnes has retired after being released by the Diamondbacks last winter then dropped by the Mariners this season when he hit .094/.237/.194 with a .157 TAv in 38 plate appearances. Webb is still recovering from shoulder surgery and also did not pitch last season following his Opening Day start.

"I'll go back to the things that I've touched," Josh Byrnes said. "It's a bang-for-your-buck business in my job, and Webb and Byrnes cost $20 million and we have nothing to show right now. That's on me. The bullpen's lack of performance is more me than him. Those are the two issues. The amount of blame directed to (Hinch) has been excessive."

The bullpen has been awful, as it has a 7.81 ERA and -4.946 WXRL, which are the worst marks in the major leagues. Byrnes made two key additions to the relief corps over the winter in trading with the Cubs for Aaron Heilman and signing Bob Howry as a free agent. Heilman has a team-leading 0.442 WXRL, but Howry was released last month after posting a 0.037 WXRL and a 9.19 ERA in 14 1/3 innings.

"On one hand, it's hard to explain," Byrnes said of the bullpen. "On the other hand, if there is someone to blame, it's me."

Byrnes also says he is open to listening to any and all trade offers, and expects to make some deals between now and the July 31 non-waiver deadline.

"We're talking about the type of trades we have to think about, maybe how trades would work as a pair," Byrnes said. "If we have 10 players to trade, if we wanted to trade Player Two and Player Seven, what would that do?"

---

Mariners manager Don Wakamatsu has been taking plenty of heat in Seattle, as his team is 24-39 and in the American League West basement in a season that began with them being the trendy pick to break through and make the playoffs for the first time in nine years. He is also being looked upon as the villain in the Ken Griffey Jr. retirement saga. Wakamatsu has been portrayed by some in the media as having pushed Griffey out by benching him, then not talking to him about the move. However, Mariners GM Jack Zduriencik makes it clear that Wakamatsu's job is safe.

"Don is our manager," Zduriencik said. "Don is the same manager who got so much praise last year, and he's not happy with what's happened this year, either. Don will be here as we turn this thing around. This team will play better baseball. Each player is in charge of what he does, his preparation. Don is in charge of this club."

Zduriencik held a closed-door meeting with the players prior to the weekend series with the Padres in which the Mariners won only one of three games. That came on the heels of the Mariners losing three of four to the Rangers, getting outscored 31-6 in the final three games. Zduriencik said his tone was positive when he addressed the team.

"Let's get back to playing good baseball and see where it takes us," Zduriencik said. "Our players know they're accountable to the city, the franchise, and their teammates. If you're not playing good baseball, I'd like to know why."

---

MLB Rumors and Rumblings: The Yankees would prefer to sign Mariners left-hander Cliff Lee as a free agent in the offseason, believing they have enough starting pitching this season that they do not need to sacrifice a package of prospects in a trade for a short-term rental. … The Pirates won't be major sellers at the trading deadline, as they have been in the past, but will look to move left-hander Zach Duke. … Former Indians manager Eric Wedge and ESPN analyst and former major-league manager Bobby Valentine have interviewed for the Orioles' managerial job. There is a school of thought that Valentine has the inside track because owner Peter Angelos is looking for a personality to breathe life into a franchise that has had 12 straight losing seasons and the worst record in the major leagues this year. … Despite their constant bickering, don't look for either White Sox GM Ken Williams or manager Ozzie Guillen to lose his job anytime soon, as owner Jerry Reinsdorf is said to still firmly believe they are the two best men for their jobs.

---

Three series to watch (all times Eastern):

Phillies (32-29) at Yankees (40-23), Tuesday-Thursday June 15-17
Roy Halladay vs. CC Sabathia, 7:05 p.m.; Kyle Kendrick vs. A.J. Burnett, 7:05 p.m.; Jamie Moyer vs. Andy Pettitte, 7:05 p.m.

Rays (40-23) at Braves (37-27), Tuesday-Thursday June 15-17
David Price vs Kenshin Kawakami, 7:10 p.m.; Wade Davis vs. Tommy Hanson, 7:10  p.m.; James Shields vs. Tim Hudson, 7:10 p.m.

Dodgers (36-27) at Reds (36-28), Tuesday-Thursday June 15-17
Hiroki Kuroda vs. Aaron Harang, 7:10 p.m. Clayton Kershaw vs. Mike Leake, 7:10 p.m.; Chad Billingsley vs. Bronson Arroyo, 12:35 p.m.

John Perrotto is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see John's other articles. You can contact John by clicking here

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