The most-watched outings on the mound this spring will come in Viera, Fla., where rookie Stephen Strasburg (right) will be pitching for the Nationals. The 21-year-old righthander, who was the No. 1 pick out of San Diego State last June, is expected to make the transition from throwing once a week for the Aztecs to being a No. 1 starter in the majors. There is one significant difference, however, between Strasburg and other college pitchers who had instant success in the big leagues: Strasburg made his name in the Mountain West, a second-tier conference. David Price, who went from the 2007 draft to pitching for the Rays in the '08 World Series, pitched in the SEC, the top-rated conference in the country during his junior (and final) year. The Giants' Tim Lincecum and former Cubs ace Mark Prior, two other highly touted pitchers who made the jump from college to the majors within the last 10 years, came out of the Pac-10, a traditional NCAA power conference.
By contrast, in Strasburg's last season at San Diego State, the Mountain West ranked eighth (out of 31 conferences) in Rating Percentage Index at the college sports analysis site warrennolan.com. (The Mountain West usually ranks much lower; this season it's 27th.) Strasburg has the build (6'4", 220 pounds) and the tools (a fastball in the high 90s and a knee-buckling curve) to be an ace, but a more realistic comparison for his potential career track might be Angels righthander Jered Weaver, who played his college ball at Long Beach State in the Big West. Weaver was drafted in 2004, signed in '05 and made his big league debut in May 2006. Like Strasburg, Weaver had tremendous stats and was considered a sure thing coming out of college, but he needed a year in the minors to adjust to the higher level of competition. Washington should take note of the Angels' handling of Weaver, who has been healthy and effective (51--27, 3.73 ERA) in his four-year career.
CLIFF WELCH/ICON SMI (STRASBURG)