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Nationals morale up, respect to follow

The Nationals Ivan Rodriguez, after catching right-hander Stephen Strasburg's bullpen session on Tuesday, turned immediately to general manager Mike Rizzo.

"This guy doesn't need any minor-league time," Rodriguez proclaimed. "He will be one of the top 10 pitchers in the league if you start him on Opening Day."

Rizzo, chuckling as he recalled the exchange by phone Tuesday night, replied, "Whoa! Whoa! Whoa!" to Rodriguez, as if to say, "Slow down!" But the excitement around the Nationals is real, and not simply because of Strasburg.

"The morale has never been higher," said Rizzo, who resigned as the Diamondbacks' scouting director to join the Nats as an assistant G.M. in July 2006. "It really is a different feel here this year than I've ever experienced, even in Arizona."

Are the Nationals ready to challenge the two-time defending National League champion Phillies for the division title?

Not exactly.

But are the Nats, coming off back-to-back 100-loss seasons, moving closer to respectability?

Absolutely.

Rizzo spent $29.4 million this off-season on seven major-league free agents, five of them pitchers. He also traded for reliever Brian Bruney and signed a number of other veteran pitchers -- among them righty Miguel Batista and lefties Eddie Guardado and Ron Villone -- to minor-league contracts.

By midseason, the Nats' top three starters could be right-hander Jason Marquis, lefty John Lannan and righty Chien-Ming Wang. Not exactly CC Sabathia, A.J. Burnett and Andy Pettitte, but we're talking about a team that last season had only one pitcher -- Lannan -- win more than five games.

Strasburg?

"He's got a long way to go," Rizzo said of the pitcher whom the Nats selected with the first pick in last year's amateur draft, but has yet to throw a pitch in the minors. "We'll go day by day, see where it takes us.

"The kid needs development. That's my background. We're certainly going to develop him in the best manner so he can have prolonged success, not just help us win a few more games in 2010."

That's the right thing for Rizzo to say -- and do. But tell it to Pudge and the rest of the Nats who, after just two bullpen sessions, are electrified by the kid's talent.

Strasburg, 21, might be difficult to hold back.

"He threw the other day and he was real good," manager Jim Riggleman said by phone Tuesday night. "Today he threw better than the other day. For me, it was very exciting to watch. The things I've been hearing about, I saw."

Rizzo said that Strasburg has "perfected" a two-seam, sinking fastball that dives into right-handers. Strasburg also throws an 88-mph changeup that disappears at the plate, almost as if were a split-fingered pitch. Rizzo actually would like to see Strasburg take more speed off the pitch to get more separation from his fastball.

The Nationals, natch, also hold the No. 1 pick in this year's amateur draft, and could end up selecting a future battery-mate for Strasburg, high-school catcher Bryce Harper. But as intriguing as the future is, the present isn't bad, either.

Wang, coming off shoulder surgery, is expected back by June 1. Riggleman said the secondary benefit of signing him is that the Nationals can continue to look at some of their younger pitchers. Rizzo sounds particularly excited about righty Garrett Mock -- "he looks outstanding" -- and lefty Matt Chico, who is fully recovered from Tommy John surgery.

The bullpen, which produced a major-league high 5.04 ERA last season, cannot be any worse. Lefty Sean Burnett and righties Tyler Clippard and Jason Bergman showed progress last season. Bruney will set up for new closer Matt Capps, who -- in the Nats' estimation -- might be a mechanical tweak away from lowering his fastball and regaining his 2007-08 form.

Rodriguez and second baseman Adam Kennedy are the offensive additions -- and Rodriguez, 38, will play perhaps a more significant role than the Nats initially envisioned as catcher Jesus Flores continues to recover from shoulder surgery.

Rizzo does not seem to mind.

Rodriguez's .664 OPS for the Rangers and Astros last season was his lowest since his rookie season in 1991. The Nationals drew heavy criticism for signing Rodriguez to a two-year, $6 million free-agent contract. But Riggleman said Rodriguez's was the team's No. 1 choice, and Rizzo loves the veteran's energy.

"I can't say enough about what he brings to the clubhouse and to the field," Rizzo said. "He is always huddled up with Flores or (Wil) Nieves, a pitcher or two, a bullpen guy or two. He's always talking, seemingly always teaching. He is very free with his time. He is the most approachable player of his stature that I've ever been around, really a breath of fresh air."

OK, OK, it's early in spring training. Rodriguez has yet to exasperate the Nats with his sub-.300 OBP. The inevitable pitching questions have yet to arise. Veterans such as first baseman Adam Dunn, third baseman Ryan Zimmerman and left fielder Josh Willingham have yet to experience the frustration of additional losing.

No matter.

The Nats have a pulse. And as Strasburg marches to the majors, that pulse will only quicken.