Time was, any story about the Washington Nationals in the middle of the summer had to do with whether the team was going to sign its (inevitably high) first-round draft pick or was going to set a new team record for losses in a season. Aside from the team's 2005 inaugural season in the nation's capital, when they improbably got off to a 50-31 start (only to invert that record in the second half of the season), the Nationals have been a complete after thought. Times have changed.
This season, led by All-Stars Stephen Strasburg and Gio Gonzalez, the pitching staff has been second to none, leading the league in team ERA, allowing the fewest runs in baseball and dominating line ups from Philadelphia to Los Angeles. The everyday players are a mix of a talented young core (1st time All-Star Ian Desmond, Silver Slugger Ryan Zimmerman, Danny Espinosa and some kid named Harper) and steady veterans (Jayson Werth (currently on DL), Adam LaRoche and Michael Morse). Put the two together and you get a team that is not only leading the National League East by 4 games but has a great chance to make its first playoff appearance since moving to D.C. seven years ago.
So what's the problem? The park is drawing big crowds, die hard Nats fans don't have to wait until the end of Sports Center or MLB Tonight to see Nats highlights and the team sent 4 players to the All-Star Game in Kansas City. These should be halcyon days in Washington, but an artificial controversy is being stirred up about whether the team should shut down Strasburg at around 160-170 innings pitched, as they intended to do when the season started. Strasburg is just over a year removed from Tommy John surgery (ulnar collateral ligament replacement) and in an abundance of caution over his long-term prospects, the team decided, as is common with young pitchers (including Strasburg's staff-mate RHP Jordan Zimmermann) to use an "innings count" and then shut him down for the year.
But now, with the team in the midst of a playoff chase, commentators are second guessing the decision. The theory goes that chances to contend for a title are iffy year to year, and if you have the chance to go to the World Series, you put your foot on the pedal and go for it. So let's consider that argument because most of the people saying this stuff seem to know very little about the team, its players or its front office's philosophy.
The future is not guaranteed. The team could have injuries that stop it from contending. Seems like a fair point on its face. After all, the Phillies, who have won the NL East five years in a row, are circling the drain in large part because of injuries to Roy Halladay, Ryan Howard and Chase Utley - three of the cornerstones of their franchise. What about the Nats? Surely all this success has been because they have escaped the injury bug? Not so. In fact, the Nationals have had as many players on the disabled list as the Phillies - and these are not bench players, the list includes their closer (Drew Storen) who is still a few days away from making his season debut, Werth (who has been out since May and is not expected back for another few weeks) and starting catcher Wilson Ramos, who tore up his knee in May and is out for the season. Zimmerman spent time on the disabled list and Morse missed the first 50 games of the season. If anything, the fact that the team is playing so well in spite of all these injuries says a lot about how much talent is on the team.
The future in not guaranteed. The "baseball gods" may not smile on the Nats in the coming years. The team's core is littered with young talent under team control for anywhere from the next year to the next six years (for a full breakdown of players under team control, read my blog, http://scarylawyerguy.blogspot.com/2012/07/embrace-your-natitude.html). In fact, of this year's everyday players, only one, Adam LaRoche, as anywhere close to free agency, and that is not until after next season. And while RHP Edwin Jackson only signed a 1-year deal, the team could re-sign him, or try to trade or sign another pitcher to replace him. In other words, the team is more likely to get better, not worse, in the years ahead.
That pitching staff just won't be the same without him. Fair, to a point; however, a 3 man rotation of Gio Gonzalez (currently leading the NL in wins), Jordan Zimmermann (2.48 ERA and 1.11 WHIP) and Edwin Jackson (World Series appearances with 2 teams) with a deep bullpen anchored by Storen and current closer Tyler Clippard, along with stalwarts like Craig Stammen and Sean Burnett is formidable even without Strasburg.
Stop babying Strasburg! This argument seems to be that the young man's arm can withstand the strain of more innings, but let's consider several points. First, Strasburg has never pitched more than 109 innings in a year, and that was at the college level. Currently, he's at 105, so at 160-170 innings, he will have pitched 60-70% more innings than he ever has, at any level, in his life. If they let him go to 170 innings, that's about 10 starts, which would mean he would still be pitching until mid-September, or about 135-140 games into the season. At worst, the team would be losing about 4-5 regular season starts from him.
But even if they let him go through the end of the season, then what? Let's say they make the World Series - assuming at least 1 start in the NLDS, 1 (maybe 2) in the NLCS and at least 1 in the WS, that's 3-4 additional starts, under much greater pressure, than the regular season. All tolled? Maybe 8 starts, another 45-50 innings, which would push him to about 220 innings, or more than double what he has ever pitched in one season. To me, this is like asking someone who has never run more than a half-marathon to run a full marathon a year after having major foot surgery. Not smart.
Moreover, if you don't have him on an innings limit, you are committing yourself to using him as long as the season goes along because if the rationale for letting him continue pitching is that you want to compete, you can't decide, say, after the Division Series, to shut him down for the League Championship or, if you win the NL pennant, to shut him down before the World Series. In for a penny, in for a pound.
The fans won't tolerate it! What "fans?" Until six months ago, the Nationals were an after thought in the nation's capital. Now that the team is winning, fans will learn more about the team, about all that young talent, and about its future. They do not expect a World Series this year - most of them didn't even know the team existed when the year started. Look at the great fan base the Capitals have built up over the past few years in D.C. They've done it without winning a Stanley Cup but competing consistently. For this year, getting to the playoffs is a reasonable goal. Next year, expectations will be higher, but Strasburg will also be ready to go a full season. The fans will follow the team as long as its winning, and that is likely to be for the next 5 years, if not longer.
The team is going to have to shut Strasburg down at some point. One need only look at players like Kerry Wood, Mark Prior and others, whose work load early in their careers resulted in injuries, to understand that the team has invested way too much money into a potential once-in-a-generation talent to risk ruining his career because the team "arrived" a season ahead of schedule. In my view, better to shut him down with 20-25 games left in the season where the team can adjust to his not being there and get prepared for the playoffs. The risk of his injuring himself is simply too great to do otherwise.
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