Posted by: Mike Cornelius | August 23, 2012

Strasburg Will Sit, But Perhaps All Is Not Lost

Every so often an issue arises that somehow manages to so capture the imagination of fans that even casual ones suddenly have a deeply held opinion about it. The volume at which those opinions are expressed rises in direct proportion to the extent that the handful of decision makers whose opinions actually matter have made up their minds, meaning of course that the issue really isn’t an issue at all. Such is the case with the Washington Nationals handling of All-Star starting pitcher Stephen Strasburg. In his first full season back after Tommy John surgery, Strasburg will be shut down in the next few weeks, before the Nats play their final regular season game and well before they begin post-season play.

Last year Washington GM Mike Rizzo was in exactly the same position with starter Jordan Zimmermann, whose own ligament replacement surgery preceded Strasburg’s by a year. In early September he ended Zimmermann’s campaign when the right-hander reached 161 1/3 innings pitched in his first full season back. When he did so, scarcely a peep was heard, even from the Nats most die-hard fans. To be sure, while he’s a fine young pitcher with a promising future, Jordan Zimmermann is no Stephen Strasburg; and when his 2011 season ended early the Nats were hopelessly out of playoff contention, playing for little more than pride and the hope of a .500 record. Plus, given the team’s history up to that point, they didn’t have that many die-hard fans. If all of that weren’t enough to guarantee the absence of controversy, Zimmermann’s place in the rotation was taken by Strasburg, returning to a major league mound scarcely more than twelve months after going under the knife. Come to think of it, Nats fans may have been eager for Zimmermann to sit.

Fast forward twelve months and the scene in southeast D.C. couldn’t be more different. After taking two out of three from second place Atlanta this week, Washington has the best record in the majors and a six game lead in the NL East as the longest season turns towards its home stretch. Last spring the thought was that Rizzo and field boss Davey Johnson were still in the process of building a team that could contend. The division was considered still the property of the Philadelphia Phillies and starters like Cliff Lee and Roy Halladay. Washington’s time to contend was thought to still be a year or two away. That conventional wisdom is but the latest example of why there really is a reason to play the games. The Phillies are ten games under .500, their two stud pitchers a combined 9-14. Meanwhile on the Nationals website season ticket holders are being urged to renew for next season now, with the promise of receiving priority for 2012 playoff tickets the prime enticement to do so.

There’s no question that Strasburg has played a major role in Washington’s surge. On Tuesday night he struck out ten Atlanta batters in six innings of work. Pitching around a 51-minute rain delay, the 24-year old phenom allowed just four hits and a single run while improving his record to 15-5 and lowering his ERA to 2.85. The fifteen victories are one short of the lead league, his ERA is in the top ten, and he leads the NL in strikeouts. It’s been almost eight decades since a Washington franchise played in the World Series. So it’s understandable that some fans would adopt a “win at any cost” mentality and vociferously oppose the idea of limiting Strasburg’s innings as he continues to recover from his surgery. But opinions have come not just from Nats fans, but from all quarters. Former New York Mayor Rudy Guliani has weighed in against shutting Strasburg down. The Washington Post editorial board has pronounced itself in favor of the move, as has famed orthopaedic surgeon Dr. James Andrews. Tommy John himself, like many former players who of course have no stake in Strasburg’s career, blasted the Nationals plan, which drew a strong retort from Strasburg’s agent Scott Boras.

John’s complaint, like much of the chorus of criticism, sounds a lot like playground taunting. “I was tough so he should be too,” is what much of the complaining boils down to. It is true of course that no matter how carefully the Nationals handle their prize pitcher, there are no guarantees about the future; some completely unrelated injury could derail Strasburg’s career. It’s also true that as much as the Nats seem to be built for the long haul there is simply no way to know if this time next year or the year after they will be atop their division and looking down at 29 other teams. What is known though is that there is no commodity both more valuable and more fragile in the Great Game than young arms. For more than a decade Sports Illustrated’s Tom Verducci has been tracking what he calls the “Year-After Effect,” producing each off-season a list of young pitchers who he expects to regress in the coming year because they were called upon to shoulder a major increase in workload in the season just ended. Verducci’s annual analysis is remarkable for its simplicity and stunning for the frequency with which it is accurate.

Relying on the best medical advice he can find and sticking with his conservative approach, GM Rizzo will ignore the complainers and end Strasburg’s season in the vicinity of 180 innings. Even that represents a significant increase in workload, enough that the pitcher should make Verducci’s 2013 list next January. The Nationals meanwhile, barring a September swoon, are about to bring post-season play back to the nation’s capital. While they will do so without their ace, it’s not like the other members of the starting rotation are all named Roger Craig, the fine fellow who posted records of 10-24 and 5-22 because he had the misfortune to play for the New York Mets in their first two seasons of existence. In fact, if one takes away games that Strasburg has started, then the Nationals merely go from having the best record in the majors to having the second best. Washington will surely miss Strasburg, but it is silly to think that they have no chance without him.

Still, once Strasburg is shut down the Nationals will need another starter. Fortunately, an unexpected and surprising answer to that dilemma presented himself at a press conference in a Houston suburb earlier this week. Roger Clemens has signed with the Sugar Land Skeeters of the independent Atlantic League, and will take the mound on Saturday. Fresh off his acquittal on perjury charges and apparently operating in his own alternate reality, Clemens would dearly love to return to the majors to add to his legacy. One more big league win would tie him with Greg Maddux for the most wins among living pitchers. It would also make Clemens the oldest man to record a victory, breaking the record set by Jamie Moyer early this season. Oh yes, even one appearance on a big league mound, regardless of the outcome, restarts the clock on his Hall of Fame eligibility. In the long run another five years may not matter, but apparently Clemens thinks it might. Surely he would like to be on some ballot other than the highly toxic one which will be released this fall, when his name is scheduled to be listed next to the likes of Barry Bonds and Sammy Sosa.

What better way to make the fans forget about the Strasburg controversy than to replace him with a seven-time Cy Young Award winner? Why they’ll be begging the young phenom to take a seat! Who cares if Clemens is fifty years old? Bring on the Rocket!


  1. great America’s pastime piece, as the chirps in the night signal the end of summer and the September push makes things exciting—The Nats are for real, and timely, in the convention season —- but Sandy Koufax wouldn’t have rested —maybe that’s why he had to retire early?

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