WASHINGTON -- Long-standing Washington Nationals "face of the franchise" Ryan Zimmerman was in the home clubhouse before Tuesday's game, fielding question after question about newly signed No. 1 draft pick Stephen Strasburg.
A few feet away, wisecracking teammate Josh Bard yelled over: "Did you hear? Strasburg's going to start tomorrow. And he's throwing every game the rest of the homestand."
Moving the joke along, Zimmerman replied: "Yeah, he's going to start and close."
Strasburg is a special prospect, one who commanded a record-breaking contract from Washington worth a guaranteed $15.1 million over four years in negotiations that closed about a minute before Monday night's deadline.
Strasburg gets a $7.5 million signing bonus payable over three years. His 2009 salary is the $400,000 minimum, which comes to a prorated $102,732. He gets $2 million in 2010, $2.5 million in 2011 and $3 million in 2012.
"He's coming into a tough situation, where everyone's going to expect him to strike out everyone, throw 110 mph," Zimmerman said. "And you've got to kind of tell him to go out there and be himself. Don't try and do too much."
Indeed, the Nationals set about tamping down everyone's expectations for the hard-throwing Strasburg, who has been labeled a once-in-a-generation talent. Acting Nationals general manager Mike Rizzo said Tuesday it's "very unlikely" Strasburg will be called up to the majors this season.
And 2010? Even that is not a certainty.
"We're going to see where his development takes him, and we're going to be very cautious with him and develop him like one of the elite prospects in the game," Rizzo said. "There's no expectations of him to be in the rotation in 2010. If he earns it, and he's ready for it, then we'll see where his talent takes him."
Strasburg has not pitched in a game since May 29, when he and San Diego State were beaten by Virginia 5-1 in an NCAA regional game -- his only loss of a junior year in which he went 13-1 and led Division I in strikeouts (195 in 109 innings) and ERA (1.32).
Rizzo said it typically takes about a month to get a pitcher ready to compete again. So the Nationals' plan to have Strasburg head to their Florida spring training complex to work with minor league pitch coordinator Spin Williams.
Then the pitcher will probably spend some time in the Florida Instructional League, followed by the Arizona Fall League, Rizzo said.
As for the difficulty of living up to outsized anticipation?
"It's external pressure, because we've never talked [about] him as the savior of the organization," Rizzo said, although he did shortly thereafter use the phrase "crown jewel."
"We expect him to develop at a usual pace," Rizzo continued, "and hopefully when he gets to the big leagues, he's ready to be here and he's everything that we think he's going to be."
The 6-foot-4, 220-pound Strasburg will probably travel from California to Washington on Thursday, and there are tentative plans to formally introduce him Friday.
The Nationals are already familiar with him from watching tape of his college performances.
"Great body for a pitcher. If you could draw it up, you're looking for a guy his height, kind of a ranginess to his body, lean guy, Jim Palmer-type body. So you just see all these things that you think, 'OK, this guy should be a successful pitcher,'" manager Jim Riggleman said. "If you'd never seen him pitch, you'd say, 'That body there should work.' But once you see the results: 'Try to sign him up.'"
The Nationals did just that.
Now his teammates are preparing to rib the rookie a bit.
Zimmerman, after all, played his college baseball at Virginia before being the No. 4 overall pick in the 2005 draft.
"They obviously got the better of him," Zimmerman said with a chuckle, thinking back to Strasburg's lone loss. "He'll definitely hear about that."