VIERA, Fla. -- Stephen Strasburg was sent to the minor leagues on Saturday by the Washington Nationals, who told baseball's top pitching prospect he needed to slow down his delivery from the stretch in order to speed up his arrival in the majors.
"I'm not a believer that a player can come from amateur baseball and step right into the major leagues," Nationals general manager Mike Rizzo said. "I've seen terrific prospects attempt it and the failure rate is too great. This is a prized asset."
The Nationals optioned the 21-year-old Strasburg, the top overall pick in June's draft, to Double-A Harrisburg. Easily the best pitcher in spring training for Washington, Strasburg got the news when he reported to Space Coast Stadium the morning after his most impressive spring outing.
He struck out eight St. Louis batters in four innings Friday night in his third spring start. Strasburg, who signed a record $15.1 million contract in August, allowed two first-inning home runs, then settled down and took command.
"It's all about confidence -- confidence in the pitches, confidence going out there. That's the bottom line," Strasburg said after clearing out his locker and packing his equipment bag. "The knock that people have on me is that I don't have experience and you're only going to get experience with time."
Displaying a fastball that reached 98 mph and a slider-curve hybrid that hitters had trouble reading out of his hand, Strasburg went 1-0 with a 2.00 ERA, allowed eight hits, walked one and struck out 12 in nine innings of three starts.
"What he did out there just verified what everybody had been saying. ... He did everything you wanted him to do. I don't think camp could have gone any better for him," manager Jim Riggleman said.
The only flaw the Nationals saw was Strasburg's propensity to rush his delivery out of the stretch. Detroit Tigers manager Jim Leyland said after watching Strasburg that the right-hander's velocity dropped several miles an hour when he had runners on base, making it easier for hitters to catch up to his fastball.
"If they tell me what to do, I'm going to do it," Strasburg said. "Sometimes it won't make sense, but more times than not, it's going to work out in the long run. I trust what they're doing with me."
If he stays on his current pitching schedule, Strasburg would be in line to start Harrisburg's Eastern League opener April 8 at Altoona. Rizzo wouldn't rule out summoning Strasburg to pitch April 3, when Washington hosts the Boston Red Sox in an exhibition game at Nationals Park.
When Strasburg will make his big-league debut remains to be seen. The Nationals led the majors with 103 losses last season.
But keeping Strasburg in the minors until late May or early June could save the Nationals a sizable sum of money because it delays Strasburg's eligibility for salary arbitration and free agency.
"It's his developmental schedule -- that's the only prerequisite I have as far as a time frame," Rizzo said. "What's in his best interest, to develop the player at the fullest, not only for now but for long term."
Added Strasburg: "Hopefully I impressed the people that make the decisions and hopefully I'll be back here soon."
Among other moves for the Nationals, right-hander Drew Storen, the 10th overall selection in June's draft, was reassigned to the Nationals' minor league camp, along with catcher Jamie Burke and left-hander Doug Slaten. Left-hander Matt Chico was optioned to Triple-A Syracuse.
The moves leave Washington with 39 players in major league camp.