Strasburg and Storen

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Strasburg and Storen

Postby CanesSkins26 » Thu Dec 03, 2009 10:48 am

Stephen Strasburg and Drew Storen, The Ace and The Closer, sit side-by-side in an empty concrete dugout at Phoenix Municipal Stadium. A few hundred feet away, a lone groundskeeper pounds the dirt around home plate with a slap-slap-slap that echoes off the vacant grandstands. The last wisps of daylight are beginning to fade over Estrella Mountain, to the west, and the desert chill is rolling in from the east. "Well, here we are," Strasburg says with a smile as the two of them kick back, having traded in their Washington Nationals jerseys for T-shirts and jeans. "What do you think? Do we look like a couple of big league saviors?"

Honestly? No. Here in the Arizona Fall League, where MLB teams send their top prospects to fine-tune their way into winter, Strasburg and Storen look more like a couple of Arizona State undergrads who've wandered in from nearby Tempe. But 2,300 miles away, in another empty stadium, Nationals Park in Washington, D.C., a front office full of baseball men know better. At least they hope they do. They've looked into the future of their franchise and chosen these two, The Ace and The Closer, to lead the Nats out of the wilderness. "But admit it -- you know a lot more about him than you do about me," Storen says with a glance toward his present and future teammate. "It's okay to admit it. Hey, you want me to get his autograph for you?"

When the players laugh, the groundskeeper suddenly realizes he has company. He looks over, then runs across the field to fire up the stadium lights. "Every player sent to the AFL is supposed to be a big deal," the man says later. "But these two? Everyone tells me these two are a really, really big deal. Sure things. The kind of guys you don't make sit in the dark."

Stephen Strasburg is nothing less than the most-hyped, most-anticipated No. 1 MLB draft pick of all time. Bigger than Alex Rodriguez, Chipper Jones, even Ken Griffey Jr. Thanks to an unprecedented level of media coverage surrounding Strasburg's three years at San Diego State, even casual sports fans knew his name long before he became the top pick on June 9. And even if they couldn't pick him out of a crowd, they've heard about his Gatling-gun feed of 100 mph fastballs.

"He single-handedly elevated the draft from a back-page, who-cares news story to the lead on SportsCenter," says ESPN analyst John Kruk. "He had us covering college baseball on Baseball Tonight. And tell me, when has the Arizona Fall League ever received national attention? Never. It doesn't matter that it's packed with future All-Stars; most people don't even know it exists. But when Strasburg made his pro debut in Arizona, it was on the front page of ESPN.com." And when he tweaked his left knee shagging fly balls before an AFL game in late November, The Washington Post's website was flooded with comments from worried Nats fans.

Undrafted out of West Hills High School, because of concerns about his weight and work ethic, Strasburg joined his hometown Aztecs in 2006 as a reliever. As his freshman season progressed, he discovered the weight room and improved his eating habits, easing into the role of part-time closer. That summer, he emerged as the best prospect in the New England Collegiate League, a poorer cousin of the Cape Cod League. The next year, he fanned 23 batters in an Aztecs game, then helped lead USA Baseball to a bronze medal at the Beijing Olympics, despite being the only college player on the roster.

This year, Strasburg delivered what may well be the greatest season ever by a collegiate pitcher, going 13-1 with a 1.32 ERA and 195 strikeouts -- with just 19 walks -- in 109 innings pitched. "I don't know how any baseball fan couldn't know who Stephen is," says Hall of Famer and SDSU coach Tony Gwynn, with his trademark chuckle. "All year long, every time I walk through an airport or go into a bookstore, he's on the cover of another magazine. I'm pretty sure Baseball America has had him on every cover since January." (Actually, Strasburg has graced four BA covers this year, plus the draft almanac.)

The historically miserly Expos-turned-Nationals drafted Strasburg despite concerns that they wouldn't be able to come to terms with uberagent Scott Boras by the mid-August deadline. In 2008, they had failed to sign their top pick, righthander Aaron Crow (who's now in the Royals' system). But Mike Rizzo, Washington's interim GM at the time, swung for the fences, hoping that the 21-year-old Strasburg would be the start of a baseball renaissance in DC. Rizzo bided his time, refused to negotiate in the press and eventually signed Strasburg to a record $15.1 million deal. (Not coincidentally, Rizzo, a longtime scouting director, got the full-time GM gig just days later.)

A mere nine picks after selecting Strasburg, Rizzo quietly nabbed Storen, a cerebral starter-turned-closer and rare draft-eligible sophomore (he turned 22 in August). He was overlooked, in part, because of Stanford's off year in 2009. Unlike Strasburg, Storen had been a highly scouted prep, at Brownsburg High outside of Indianapolis, and he was originally drafted by the Yankees, his favorite team growing up. But the academic lure of Stanford coupled with the chance to play in the College World Series, which he did in 2008, won out.

In a twist of fate, the Nationals got the extra first-round choice they used on Storen as compensation for losing out on Crow last year. By summer's end, Storen had blown through three levels of the minor leagues, reducing his ERA from 3.68 in Low-A to 1.80 in High-A to 0.00 in 10 games with Double-A Harrisburg. Yet, in his own half-joking words, he is still "the most overlooked No. 10 pick of all time."

Of course, that isn't the case among members of the baseball fraternity -- the scouts and cross-checkers and MLB executives who line the middle rows behind home plate of nearly every high school, college and minor league park in the country. "This kid right here is going to give us headaches for a long time," said Mets GM Omar Minaya, scarfing down a hot dog as he moved quickly to take a seat in the grandstand while Storen warmed up for an AFL appearance in early November. "He doesn't get the attention that the big starter does. But somebody has to come in and end all those games that Strasburg is supposed to win, right?"

Minaya pauses, then waves his hand in the direction of all the scouts brandishing clipboards and radar guns. "If you want to know who the real deals are, watch these guys. They'll sit here and BS about golf and whatever for three hours, but when a real deal takes the mound or comes to the plate, they all shut up and pay attention."

The Ace and The Closer are such polar opposites that their pairing almost seems deliberate. Both are righthanders, but the 6'5", 225-pound Strasburg lives on heat and changeups, while the 6'1", 180-pound Storen employs a five-pitch repertoire built on sliders and curves. Storen was the first of all first-rounders to sign, inking his $1.6 million deal less than 24 hours after he was drafted; Strasburg was among the last, agreeing just seconds before the midnight deadline, on Aug. 17. But the biggest contrast between the two is revealed when the cameras and tape recorders come on. "From the word go, Drew is a talker," Strasburg says. "He can talk about anything." On cue, Storen interrupts The Ace and says, "He talks too. He just has to get warmed up first."

This is how it's been since they met in September. Shortly after signing, Strasburg was whisked cross-country to be trotted out for the Washington press corps. He was brought back for more meet-and-greets two weeks later during a homestand. Meanwhile, Storen had been loading up his car to head home to Indy from Harrisburg when he too was summoned to Nationals Park. The two pitchers shared a quick handshake in the clubhouse while the cellar-dwelling Nats prepared for yet another meaningless late-season game. "I was such a deer in the headlights," Strasburg admits now. "They flew me out there and had me playing catch for a bunch of media guys at 7 in the morning, which is 4 in the morning San Diego time. I was so tired and still in shock. I wish I could have that whole first press conference back. I think I got off on the wrong foot with a lot of those guys. I came off kind of short with them. I was just tired and overwhelmed."

That's when Storen stepped in. The son of longtime Indianapolis broadcaster Mark Patrick, he's been around cameras and satellite trucks his entire life. During the press gauntlet, the Nationals media relations staff quickly realized that not only was it okay with Strasburg to share TV live shots with Storen, but it actually seemed to relax the big guy knowing that his new teammate would take the brunt of the camera crush. Storen says of Strasburg, "I get the feeling that before he's ready to jump in and start talking, he kind of sizes everything up first." Strasburg nods. "That's exactly what I do," he says. "My freshman year at State, my coaches were like, 'Does this guy ever talk?' But last year, when I was ready to take on that role as leader on the team, you couldn't get me to shut up."

The Ace and The Closer didn't have much of a chance to interact one-on-one in DC, so they were eager to get to know each other better. Before leaving for Arizona and the AFL, they were sent to Washington's spring camp in Viera, Fla., for the instructional league. There, over steak salad at a Cracker Barrel restaurant just off I-95, the two pitchers chatted like long-lost friends. Strasburg wanted to know all about Storen's experience at Stanford, where the former had wanted to go but didn't get accepted. ("Hey, it is Stanford," he says with a shrug.) They talked about everything, from Strasburg's impending nuptials to what color gloves they planned to wear in the bigs.

At one point, the conversation deepened. Storen asked Strasburg how he dealt with the hype. After listening to a stock answer, Storen did what Storen does: He opened his mouth and shot straight. "You know you're LeBron James, right?" Strasburg was taken aback. "What? No, I'm not. I just want to pitch and be a part of the team ... " Storen wasn't buying it. "Seriously, you're LeBron," he said. "You can't be just another guy. You're The Guy, the one who can do stuff no one else can do. You have to be that guy, whether you like it or not."

Recalling the conversation a month later, sitting in the Arizona dugout, Strasburg actually blushes. He talks about "no guarantees in the spring," and both players promise not to worry if they start the 2010 season in the minors. Then Strasburg revisits his earlier "savior" comment, this time seriously. "If people think that I, or we, the two of us, are going to save the Washington Nationals by ourselves -- we just aren't. I'm not planning on pitching 162 games, and I don't think Drew is planning on saving 162 games. Every fifth game, I'm going to do what I can. And every other game, Drew is going to do what he can. But whenever we get to the big leagues, it can't just be us."

If all goes well in DC, it won't be. In addition to The Ace and The Closer, several other members of the Nats' future were on display with the AFL's Phoenix Desert Dogs, including possible Storen setup man Josh Wilkie, infielders Danny Espinosa and Chris Marrero and catcher Sean Rooney. And there will be more where they came from, because the long-barren farm system is being rebuilt by Rizzo's first prize hire, former Braves scouting director Roy Clark. "I was looking at our projected 2013 lineup in Baseball America just now in the clubhouse," Strasburg says, failing to mention that he was on the cover of the publication's "NL East Top 10 Prospects" issue. "A lot of those guys are here with us. It's really a good bunch."

Just how good depends mainly on "LeBron." He's off to a good start. In Strasburg's next outing for the Desert Dogs, just his fourth appearance as a professional, he walks in from the bullpen looking nothing like the relaxed kid in the dugout. He mutters to himself. His huge hands look as if they might pulverize the baseball in a death grip. The quiet man is, finally, ready to explode. His first offering, a fastball strike, hits 100 mph. So do three of his next four pitches -- and not just on the tweaked-up-for-the-fans scoreboard radar, but on the telltale guns of the baseball men. The fourth pitch registers 93, prompting laughter in the stands as one scout says loudly, "I guess that was his changeup."

Meanwhile, along the very top row of the stadium, a couple of fans in rumpled Nationals jerseys scurry about the aluminum bleachers, their activity exposed as suspicious by the bright orange extension cord that runs up to their seats. One man takes pictures of Strasburg in action, then runs to the other man, who waits with a photo printer to crank out images ready for sale -- and for autographing by The Ace after the game. "There is the future of the Nationals right there," says the printer guy, holding up a glossy 4x6 photo snapped just a few moments earlier. "The man who will save baseball in Washington!"

Asked if they'll give The Closer the same insta-print treatment, the bleacher entrepreneurs respond, "Drew who?"

Ryan McGee is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine. You can access his NASCAR-themed Insider blog right here.


http://insider.espn.go.com/mlb/insider/news/story?id=4705018
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Postby Jake » Thu Dec 03, 2009 12:03 pm

Great story. I'm definitely rooting for both of them, especially Storen. I can't wait to see how their careers pan out.
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