Gammons: Leake's jump rarely seen

Gammons: Leake's jump rarely seen

Aroldis Chapman never did pitch on Friday night because of rain. Stephen Strasburg did, making his Harrisburg home debut through hours of rain delays and the kettle drums of unlimited expectations.

Chapman may turn out to be the Cuban Tim Lincecum, Strasburg the next Justin Verlander. Each has to live in the public stocks of unlimited dissection, scrutiny and analysis, which Mike Leake avoided as he jumped from Arizona State to his first two professional appearances with the Cincinnati Reds. Nor did David Price or Lincecum or Verlander.

Mike Rizzo is the Nationals' general manager, and he has been watching and evaluating talent longer than most of the scouting combines, combined. He brought Justin Upton, Max Scherzer, Stephen Drew and many others to the Diamondbacks, just as Roy Clark drafted and signed a couple of generations of Brian McCanns, Jason Heywards, Tommy Hansons, Jeff Francoeurs, et al.

They understand.

"It's not just about stuff or talent," said Rizzo. "It's about making sure each individual player is prepared when he gets to the Major Leagues, prepared so they stay here a long time."

Rizzo has heard and read that the Nationals were "stupid" for not opening the season with wunderkind Strasburg, or even that the 21-year-old was sent to Double-A to make certain he has to wait an extra year until he is arbitration-eligible, a charge agent Scott Boras vehemently denies.

"Where Stephen started had nothing to do with money," said Boras. "It's about the proper development, and about insuring the length of his career. People forget that Strasburg was a year ahead of himself, pitching most of his draft year at 20.

"Go back and look at the history of pitchers who run up large inning totals before they're 23, and what happens to their careers. Steve Avery, for instance. Strasburg can be a franchise pitcher for the Nationals, but he needs to be developed carefully."

College pitchers start once a week.

"The adjustment to starting every fifth day can be a difficult adjustment, mentally and physically," said former Blue Jays general manager J.P. Ricciardi. "Ricky Romero was throwing 95 mph when we drafted him [with the sixth overall pick] in 2005. A year later, he was throwing 87-88. He had a tough time making that adjustment and bouncing back.

"He eventually made the adjustment, built up his arm and his stamina, and now he's throwing as well as he did in college and is one of the best young pitchers around."

So good, one veteran National League scout calls Romero "one of the five best left-handed starters in the American League." Which makes Giants fans think about Madison Bumgarner regaining his velocity as he adjusts to the routine of professional baseball.

Rizzo and Boras discussed Strasburg's timetable as they worked out his record bonus deal last August.

"Ideally," said Rizzo, "we'd like to keep Strasburg at about 140-150 innings this year. Then maybe 170 next year. By 2012, he should be ready for the 200-innings load."

By 2012, Jordan Zimmermann will likely be fully healthy. Drew Storen may be the Nationals' closer. By ignoring the temptation of using Strasburg to sell tickets in the short term, the 2012 Nationals may be ready to be a legitimate contender in the National League East as the Phillies' star players get into their mid-30s.

Strasburg has pitched a total of 7 1/3 professional innings. His 11-to-2 strikeout-to-walk ratio is as gaudy as his stuff, but it has come in the Eastern League. Chapman's rainout on Friday left him at 4 2/3 professional innings before Saturday's start. The Nationals and Reds didn't fork over nearly $45 million for short-term publicity.

Ask Price. After being the first overall pick in the 2007 Draft, the left-hander shot through the Rays organization in 2008 and was a postseason sensation pitching in relief. But he went into the 2009 season as a starter, eventually finishing with a 10-7 record and a 4.42 ERA.

"It's a far bigger adjustment than people realize," said Price, who has had to adapt to the American League East. "I've learned a lot -- I'm getting better. I have a ways to go, but I believe I'm I'm getting there."

Leake was one of the most polished college pitchers in years, and he so impressed the Reds in Spring Training that he opened the season as their fifth starter with no professional experience. In his first start, Leake uncharacteristically walked six. On Friday night, he posted a solid quality start against the Pirates, only to see the Cincinnati bullpen lose the game.

College pitchers in the 1965-2009 Draft era who made their pro debuts in the Majors.
Player
Team
Record
Mike AdamsonBAL0-4
Steve DunningCLE21-35
Pete BrobergWAS41-71
Eddie BaneMIN7-13
Burt HootonCHC151-136
Jim AbbottANA85-100
Darren DreifortLA48-65
Mike LeakeCIN0-0

Despite his athleticism and finish, Leake is facing an uphill climb. Look at the history of college pitchers who were drafted and made their professional debuts in the Major Leagues.

This applies to relievers as well. Of the relievers selected in the first round, Chad Cordero had the most success. He was taken in the 2003 Draft, went right to the Majors and had seasons in which he recorded 14, 47, 29 and 37 saves. By the age of 26, he was back in the Minors, damaged goods.

The Red Sox blew Craig Hansen threw their system into the Majors after taking him in the first round in 2005; he's 4-9 with a 6.34 ERA lifetime. The Reds did the same with Ryan Wagner; he is 11-9 with a 4.79 ERA with no saves for his career. Casey Weathers was the seventh pick in the 2007 Draft; he did not pitch in 2009. David Aardsma was the Giants' first pick in 2003, but he went from the Giants to the Cubs to the White Sox to the Red Sox before finding himself in Seattle last season.

The same applies to catchers because college coaches face so much pressure to win that they insist on calling pitches, which retards their catchers' development.

"It sometimes takes a few years for young catchers to learn to handle the game because they're never allowed to call games," said Boston catching guru Gary Tuck. "You see some kids struggle for a long time."

The Giants have taken some criticism for re-signing Bengie Molina and holding back Buster Posey. But with the great stuff on the Giants' staff, Molina's veteran pitch-calling and receiving go underrated. Posey has a chance to be an All-Star, but he also pitched and played shortstop at Florida State, and one scout who has known him since his early college days said: "Buster needs the time to learn. He's going to be great, but he never called pitches until he signed."

"There's a lot more to being successful in the Majors than a pitcher having great stuff or a catcher being able to catch, throw and hit," said Rizzo. "It's a tough game when you're learning in the Major Leagues. You want a kid to have a solid foundation before he gets to the Majors."

Which the Nationals want Strasburg to have before he gets to Washington with Ryan Zimmerman, Nyjer Morgan, et al, to become a face of the franchise.

Peter Gammons is a columnist for MLB.com and analyst for MLB Network. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.