In one of his first media interviews back in 2004, then general manager Jim Bowden made it very clear that first priority—his only priority really—was to stock the Nationals' barren farm system with pitching talent. "You develop pitchers," Bowden said, "and you find the bats through trades and free agency."
And so we watched as all those unknown names with a "P" next to their name were taken in the Amateur Draft in 2005, and 2006, and 2007, and we happily waited for them to mature from Minor League prospects into Major League pitchers.
And we waited.
In 2005, Marco Estrada was taken in the sixth round, Jack Spradlin in the eighth, and John Lannan in the 11th. Craig Stammen came one round later. In 2006, the Nationals added Colten Willems in the first round, Cory Van Allen in the fifth, Cole Kimball in the 12th, and Hassan Pena in the 13th. Ross Detwiler (First), Josh Smoker (First), Jordan Zimmermann (Second), Jack McGeary (Sixth) and Adrian Alaniz (12th) came in 2007.
And still we waited.
Um...excuse me, Jimbo, how long does it take to develop Major League pitchers?
Among those players, perhaps a half dozen were expected to blossom into capable big leaguers, almost none of them have shown that they might pitch in the Major Leagues one day.
The answer is, then, that it takes a very long time to develop a Major League pitcher. For the Nationals, from those thirteen respected Minor League prospects, one player—John Lannan—has successfully made the transition to the Major Leagues.
And Lannan was an 11th round pick. Ross Detwiler, the much-heralded first round selection in 2007 who was supposed to already be in the Nationals' rotation, had a rough year at Potomac (A) last year and isn't looking much better at Harrisburg (AA) in 2009.
An 11th round pick succeeds where a first rounder struggles. Go figure.
To this point, I don't think any of us knew exactly what a "real" pitching prospect looked like and therefore didn't know what to expect. Was Detwiler making satisfactory progress? Was he a "can't-miss" prospect?
It was hard to say because we had no one to compare him to.
That is, until Jordan Zimmermann entered the scene. Zimmermann, a second round pick, came from a cold-weather state (Wisconsin) and a Division III college (Wisconsin Stevens-Point).
He was a total unknown.
Lannan's rise to the Major Leagues was meteoric. In less than three Minor League seasons, Lannan compiled a 21-16 record with a 3.89 ERA, very good for the minors.
Well, if that was meteoric, then Jordan Zimmermann got to the majors at warp eight.
Zimmermann, in less than two full seasons in the minors, compiled a record of 15-5 with a 2.74 ERA and a tremendous WHIP (base runners allowed per inning) of 1.17. By way of comparison, Roger Clemens had the same 1.17 WHIP over his Major League career.
In other words, that's pretty good.
Clemens spent parts of two seasons in the Minors before joining the Red Sox. Jake Peavy joined the Padres in less than three years, the same as Greg Maddux. Tom Glavine arrived after two years.
The point I'm making is that while many All-Star hitters remain in the Minors for four or five years, the star pitchers tend to land in the Majors much faster. The average time spent in the minors for the last eight National League ERA leaders is 2.7 years. Further, when they get there, they tend to stay there.
How good is Jordan Zimmermann? It's hard to say after just one game, but Washington Post sportswriter Dave Sheinin talked to a scout who watched Zimmermann pitch against the Braves on Tuesday. Sheinin said that this particular scout is usually conservative in his opinion, which makes his opinion even more impressive:
"I really like him. Everybody talks about his velocity, but I like the potential for both of his breaking balls. His slider is very good. Once he finds his true velocity, I think he'll eventually pitch at 92 [mph] with two very good breaking balls. His change up is his worst pitch, but he has the potential to be a true four-pitch pitcher."
"I had him topped out at 95, but he was really comfortable at 92, 93, and I think that's where he's going to settle in. The one thing that bothers me in his delivery is [that] he flies open a little bit. And his command in the strike zone—he throws a lot of strikes, but they weren't all necessarily quality strikes. He was getting hit hardest on his fastballs. His fastball command was a little less consistent than I'm sure he would've liked."
"I think he's going to be a solid rotation guy—or maybe better than that. He has the potential to be a [number] 1 or 2. If I had to pencil him right now, I'd call him a 2. But I tell you, if they draft [Stephen] Strasburg and get him signed, and if this kid [Zimmermann] does what he's supposed to do, that's a hell of a back-to-back. If they come up with a third pitcher, they're the Florida Marlins. They could really have something here."
That last paragraph is most telling. If Zimmermann is "as advertised," and the Nationals' sign Steven Strasburg as anticipated, Washington could have—as quickly as 2010—two No. 1 starters in their rotation. John Lannan would then become the No. 3 starter, which is what most scouts believe he is. Add Scott Olsen and Shairon Martis and the Nationals could have a formidable rotation, and sooner rather than later.
The Nationals' starters had a 13.20 ERA in their first starts this season, and a 4.84 ERA the second time through the rotation. The third time was the charm, as the starters—including Zimmermann—posted a 2.67 ERA.
It's vogue to scoff at the Washington Nationals these days, and it drives me crazy because these so-called experts are basing their opinions on that 1-10 start and not the reason for the start or the true ability of the team.
I think the Nationals will make up for that horrid start over the course of the year and still think they can reach 75 wins if they can avoid another long losing streak.
And if Steven Strasburg is the real deal, then it just might be a very special year.