By Ross Newhan
With the Washington Nationals 31 games over .500, seven games ahead of the Atlanta Braves in the National League East and wondering if it is too early to put the champagne on ice, they are also preparing to shut down their best pitcher until next year. Stephen Strasburg, 24 and two years removed from Tommy John surgery, will probably make three or four more starts before his magic numbers become 2013.
Strasburg, signed out of San Diego State as one of the most ballyhooed and blistering pitchers of the modern era, is 15-5, has a 2.85 earned-run average and leads the league with 183 strikeouts in 145 1/3 innings. He has a knee-buckling curve and a fastball in the high 90s.
The decision to protect his most valuable asset by shutting him down early, by turning him into a spectator during the playoffs, was made by General Manager Mike Rizzo before the season began. Rizzo has not said how many innings he will allow Strasburg to pitch, but it is believed to be in the 170 area. Since Strasburg pitches about six or seven innings (at most) per start, three or four more is probably the outside limit
Rizzo has not talked in depth about his reasoning, but agent Scott Boras has, citing medical evidence documenting that 24 year old pitchers in their first full season after Tommy John surgery have a far better shot at a longer career if protected wisely during their comeback season. Boras has been outspoken on this, ripping Tommy John himself after John pointed out that he made 31 starts and pitched 207 innings two years after his groundbreaking surgery in 1974 and ultimately pitched 15 years more.
Strasburg is a power pitcher and John was more of a finesse pitcher, and it is probably impossible to predict career length given individual mechanics and physical traits.
If Rizzo and Boras believe the smartest and safer course is to protect their valuable asset (Strasburg received a four year, $15.1 million contract when initially drafted), there is probably not a right or wrong to it. The befuddling aspect to me is the absense of vigorous argument from Strasburg, whose basic posture has been that he gets his information from the internet and that the decision is out of his hands.
Give me a break.
At 24 and obviously healthy, with his team hopeful that Strasburg represents repeated victories in the playoffs and no guarantee that the Nationals will advance that far next year or for several years, shouldn't Strasburg be hammering on Rizzo's desk and demanding to pitch out the season--no matter how far it goes?
Instead, he is apparently satisfied pitching every fifth day into September and watching the golf channel in between starts.
Rosters expand in September, so Strasburg will ultimately slip into an abyss and not be included on the 25 player post-season roster.
The Nationals lead the NL in team earned-run average at 3.23, but Gio Gonzalez, 16-6, is the only Nationals pitcher other than Strasburg in double figures in wins.
Will Strasburg be missed? What do his teammates really think, and what happens if another Nationals starters gets hurt in October when Strasburg won't be available? Shouldn't he be showing some annoyance at this decision, even though it is designed to extend his career in the view of Rizzo and Boras?
It is possible that no prospective division winner has ever arbitrarily sat its ace, as the Nationals are about to do on the eve of the post-season.
It is possible that no ace has ever simply shrugged and slipped away with a similar whimper instead of a bang.