Posted by: Mike Cornelius | August 22, 2010

The Strasburg Express Hits A Couple Of Potholes

If you’re wondering where that huge groan you heard Saturday night originated, the location was the nation’s capital, where Washington Nationals fans were in front of their flat screens watching pitching phenom Steven Strasburg face the Phillies up the road in Pennsylvania. Stasburg had gone exactly a month without a win. For fifteen days of that interregnum, he was on the disabled list for the first time in his major league career. He was placed there in late July, one day after being pulled from a scheduled start against the Atlanta Braves when he experienced shoulder tightness while warming up.

In his first outing back from the DL earlier this month, Strasburg was genuinely roughed up for the first time in his rookie season, surrendering six earned runs on six hits while striking out just four in 4 1/3 innings against the Florida Marlins. It was the first time Strasburg had given up more hits than he had recorded strikeouts.

But last night fans were ready to write off that one rocky outing to rust, because Strasburg was dominating the defending National League champs. With one out in the fifth, he had allowed just one run on two hits while striking out six. But after releasing his 56th pitch, a changeup to Phillies right fielder Dominic Brown, Strasburg started shaking his right arm. He was quickly surrounded by manager Jim Riggleman and the Nats trainer and pitching coach. Needless to say, Strasburg’s night was done.

After the game, Nationals’ general manager Mike Rizzo said that the apparent injury was a strain of the flexor tendon in Strasburg’s right forearm. By this morning Strasburg reported that his arm was feeling better, but he still headed back to Washington to undergo an MRI.

The delicacy with which GM Rizzo and manager Riggleman are handling Strasburg reflect their obvious desire to protect a $15.1 million investment. That’s especially true on a club that is going to finish in last place in the NL East this year; but at least not with an embarrassing 100+ losses. The Nationals are a team that is building for a not so distant future in which they expect Steven Strasburg to play a major role; how many more starts he makes this year is of little importance to that long-term plan.

But it also reflects the enormous roll of the dice that all major league clubs take with young pitchers. Like every major league GM, Rizzo knows all too well the cautionary tale of Mark Prior. Drafted by the Cubs in 2001, Prior was hailed as a certain superstar. In 2003, his first full season in the majors, he went 18-6 and finished third in the NL Cy Young Award voting. But in four other seasons with Chicago he won just 24 more games while losing 23. The list of injuries Prior suffered is lengthy. A strained hamstring ended his 2002 rookie season early. He missed two months of the 2004 campaign with an injury to his Achilles tendon. Elbow problems plagued him in 2005 while in 2006 it was his shoulder. Prior hasn’t pitched in the majors since 2006, but has had two shoulder surgeries in the years since his last big league appearance. Earlier this month the once certain superstar signed a contract with the Orange County Flyers of the Golden Baseball League.

A big part of the gamble rests in the fact that there is simply no way to know for certain how a young pitcher will develop. Strasburg had no particular injury history at San Diego State. The Nationals undoubtedly conducted an exhaustive medical review before agreeing to the record-setting contract at this time last year. But last night marked the fourth time since signing with Washington that the pitcher has missed or had to leave starts because of injury. In the Arizona Fall League last year, Strasburg’s turn was skipped twice, once due to a stiff neck and again later when he twisted his knee playing catch. Then there was the recent trip to the disabled list and now last night’s potentially more serious injury.

In Prior’s case, much of the blame for the plague of injuries that ruined his career has been assigned to his being overworked early on. After throwing 167 innings between the minor and majors in 2002, he worked more than 211 innings in his breakout year. In addition to the big increase in innings pitched, Prior was regularly throwing more than 110 pitches per game as the Cubs chased a division title. There were also questions, but only after the fact, about whether his mechanics contributed to Prior’s injuries.

Whether it was overwork, faulty mechanics, or just bad luck, the Mark Prior story and others like it explain why young pitchers today are treated with kid gloves. Strasburg has been kept on a strict pitch count in all of his appearances. Even if yesterday’s problem proves to be minor, he’s only a handful of starts from a season limit thought to be around 160 innings pitched. It’s an approach not without controversy, as some observers see it as coddling. But most general managers have concluded that the slow development of young arms will lead to longer careers.

Nats fans hope that Steven Strasburg’s career will ultimately evoke memories of Washington’s legendary great, Walter Johnson. The young right hander has given them plenty of moments this season to believe that could happen. But at times like the fifth inning last night they hold their collective breath while nightmare visions of Mark Prior run through their minds. Only the passage of time will provide the answer. The only two certainties are that there is no such thing as a sure thing; and with $15.1 million of owner Ted Lerner’s money on the line, Mike Rizzo and Jim Riggleman are going to be very, very, very careful.

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