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Nats' days as laughingstock may be over with Strasburg on board

The four-minute clock that began counting down at the command of Commissioner Bud Selig at the start of Tuesday's MLB Draft marked not only the beginning of the draft but the end of the Washington Nationals' time as a mostly anonymous, seemingly directionless and understandably inept franchise.

When the four minutes were up, Selig returned to the podium and made perhaps the least-dramatic and most widely expected No. 1 pick since LeBron James went to the Cleveland Cavaliers in 2003: Stephen Strasburg was going to Washington. Strasburg's task is much the same as James' was six years ago: Revive a moribund franchise, energize a diminishing fan base and live up to an incredible -- and perhaps prohibitive -- amount of hype.

The accolades that have been bestowed upon Strasburg in the weeks leading up to the draft have labeled the 6-foot-4, 200-pound righty with the heat-seeking 100 mph fastball nothing less than the most promising pitching prospect in decades, if not ever. His overpowering junior season at San Diego State, in which he went 13-1 with a 1.32 ERA and 16.1 strikeouts per nine innings, made his selection as the top pick a mere formality for the Nats. It was also a necessity for them, as they try to emerge from a nightmarish season that has seen diminishing attendance and mounting criticism for their disastrous performance on the field and embarrassing missteps off it (misspelled jerseys and bats, fireworks displays gone wrong, etc.)

"This is a huge day for the Nationals franchise," said acting general manager Mike Rizzo, who grabbed Stanford relief pitcher Drew Storen with the 10th overall pick (compensation for failing to sign '08 first-rounder Aaron Crow). "Pitching can turn around a franchise in a hurry when you get two big horses in the top 10 picks. It's a historic day for us here in Washington."

The Nationals did not need their four minutes to decide to draft Strasburg, whose triple-digit fastball and mound presence has inspired a level of hyperbole previously unseen in the major league draft. They have not ever needed four minutes to decide on Strasburg, knowing almost from the moment they limped to the majors' worst record a season ago they would arrive at this moment, on this day, with only one name in mind. In fact, in February about the same time Strasburg was beginning his junior season at San Diego State, the Nationals held a pre-draft meeting that began with the following announcement: "We're not even going to talk about No. 1. Let's just talk about No. 10."

What the Nationals did with the No. 10 pick is the same thing they did at No. 1: Draft a promising right-handed pitcher with a quality fastball and good makeup who, in the words of Rizzo, is "a quick-to-the-big-leagues guy." In addition to Strasburg, the Nats got Storen, who went 7-1 with a 3.79 ERA this season. With the 50th overall pick, they got second baseman Jeffrey Kobernus from Cal, who has drawn comparisons to Jeff Kent for his offensive gifts.

In Storen and Strasburg, the Nationals got two pitchers who could well be in the major leagues next season, if not sooner. The Nats need all the help they can get: Their 5.51 staff ERA is the worst in the majors, and at 15-40, they're well on their way to having the No. 1 pick in next year's draft, as well. Both also represent the first sign, to date, the Nationals are making strides to become realistic contenders. This is a franchise sidetracked in recent years by the soap opera of changing ownership and management, a move from Montreal to the nation's capital and the worst record in baseball over the past four years.

Strasburg -- and to a lesser extent Storen -- will be asked to provide a foundation for future success that has thus far been elusive for the five-year-old Nationals. How quickly Strasburg arrives in D.C. to begin doing just that remains to be seen. There are conflicting reports about Strasburg's major-league readiness, but everyone agrees he will not need a long apprenticeship at the minor league level. "He's a lot closer than people think," said Tony Gwynn, Strasburg's coach at San Diego State.

"It's tough to say right now," said Strasburg when asked about the possibility of pitching in the bigs this season. "I'm just really enjoying this time right now with friends and family. I just have to go from here and see what happens."

Strasburg's arrival date in the major leagues will depend as much on how long it takes him to sign, as it does his prodigious talent. Rizzo and National management promised that signability would not be a factor in their decision to draft Strasburg, who, according to various reports, could seek up to $50 million, which would shatter the previous record for a draft pick. Rizzo said the Lerner family, which owns the Nationals, "is giving us the resources to go out and get the best player in each round."

Selig was asked whether or not he is concerned by the astronomical price tag that has been dangled as a possibility for Strasburg and said, "It's now in Washington's hands, as it should be. They know what draft picks have gotten. They're on their own. I've said before there are some things that need tweaking and modification and I'll leave it at that."

The glowing reports about Strasburg's ability and tales of his domination have led some to believe that he needs little tweaking or modification. "In the minds of a lot of people smarter than me, he's the best [prospect] they've ever seen," said Pat Corrales, a special consultant to the Nationals who represented the team, along with Devon White, the team's outfield coordinator, at the draft.

"In today's baseball, a lot of young pitchers have a hard time throwing strikes. They throw away from the bat. He doesn't do that," said Corrales, who scouted Strasburg earlier this season.

"He's got some unbelievable stuff, wow he's got some good stuff," marveled Ben McDonald, himself a hard-throwing former No. 1 overall pick who is now a college baseball analyst. "He's not just a hard-throwing guy, he's got a curveball and a changeup. Major league hitters can time anything. They can turn around a 98 mph fastball. He showed me he can spot the ball and has three real pitches."

McDonald is one of the thousands, if not millions, who were so sucked in by the seemingly outrageous tales of Strasburg's domination that they had to YouTube him to see it for themselves. "I called Scott Boras, who was my agent, to ask about him," said McDonald. "He told me he's that good."

For the talent Strasburg has shown, the attention he's gotten and the potential greatness he promises for a town and a franchise desperate to win, he'd better be.

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