Caution with Strasburg overrides immediacy
Nats GM Rizzo's plan to shut him down despite pennant race makes long-term sense
Baseball people can be inventive when the situation calls for it. It was just this month, for example, that the Rockies launched Project 5183, a grand experiment involving four starting pitchers, 75-pitch limits and rotating middle relievers to pick up where the starters leave off.
No matter how stubborn the puzzle, there has to be a way to solve it if enough thought and ingenuity are applied, right?
Apparently not. At least not in the case of the Nationals' prized right-hander, Stephen Strasburg. With the heralded young star coming off Tommy John surgery, general manager Mike Rizzo let it be known early that he planned to put a cap on the number of innings Strasburg throws this season. No number has been announced, but speculation has the limit somewhere in the vicinity of the 161 1/3 innings that Jordan Zimmermann, also coming off elbow surgery, was under last season before being shut down.
"When we signed Stephen, I made a promise to him and to his parents that I would take care of him, and that's what we are going to do," Rizzo said. "I told them we would always do what's best for him. This is a kid who has never pitched more than 123 innings in a year.
"We are looking at not only competing for the playoffs this season but also in '13, '14, '15 and beyond. Stephen is a big part of those plans, and I will not do anything that could potentially harm him down the road."
Rizzo also said the decision as to when to shut down Strasburg will be his and his alone.
"It will be the eye test," Rizzo told ESPN. "[Manager] Davey [Johnson] won't decide, and ownership won't decide. It will be the general manager, and that's me.
"We'll do it my way. I have the full support of ownership on this issue. It's my decision, and I've made it. There will be no going back on the decision."
Strasburg, who turned 24 on Friday, upped his innings total to 110 1/3 so far this season when he tossed 5 1/3 frames against Atlanta in an 11-10 loss. At this rate he could be done in early September, which has become a big deal, because the Nats are well positioned to become the first Washington baseball team to make the postseason since 1933.
Still, there just doesn't seem to be any way to have Strasburg available for the stretch run and the postseason and still protect his future.
|"You're talking about a once-in-a-lifetime franchise pitcher here. You've got to think, No. 1, of the welfare of the kid; No. 2, of the franchise from here moving forward. It will be interesting."|
-- Former pitching coach|
"I'm sure they've already put all those options up on the board, discussed it. 'What can we do? Do we have a sixth man to put in the rotation? Can we skip him one time? What's the schedule look like? How many off-days have we got? What if he has a strained groin for a couple weeks?'
"Of course, it would be possible to simply have Strasburg take a break for, say, six weeks right about now. Let him rest his arm, then come back strong when the games count most. It would be possible, but it wouldn't be smart."
Said former Braves and Orioles pitching coach Leo Mazzone: "You know what the hardest thing on the arm is? Starting and stopping. So now you're going to lay it up for two weeks or whatever and then crank it up again? It doesn't make any sense."
"I think the risk of injury would be high to shut him down like that," he said. "Then you restart the arm up. I just think that's risky. Very risky. The arm's been on that pace. Throwing every five days. Throwing on the side every five days. Some long-tossing in between. Then you shut him down and you start him up again, you don't know how the arm's going to react."
What makes this such an interesting proposition is the conflict between the rightful need to do whatever it takes to ensure that Strasburg can help the team for years and the realization that there are no guarantees that the Nationals will be in such a commanding position again. Things happen, the thinking goes, so you should do whatever it takes to go for it when the opportunity arises.
Kerrigan, for one, thinks that Rizzo is doing the right thing. While acknowledging that chances to win a World Series can't be ignored, he said, "You're talking about a once-in-a-lifetime franchise pitcher here. You've got to think, No. 1, of the welfare of the kid; No. 2, of the franchise from here moving forward.
"It will be interesting. There's been loads of discussion on it. It's been that way since the start of the season. But you know me. I'm an old pitching coach. So I'm in agreement with it."
Making it more interesting is that the one person who isn't in agreement is Strasburg himself.
"They'll have to pry the ball out of my hand, and I mean it," Strasburg told reporters.
Every indication is that Rizzo is going to stick to his guns, and he got a vote of confidence from what might seem at first like an unlikely source: Zimmermann, who admitted that he was unhappy about having his season ended prematurely in 2011.
"At the time, I wanted to keep pitching because I felt good," he told The Washington Post. "I wanted to keep going. [But] after coming back this year and feeling the way I feel, I look at it as it was the right choice to make. Obviously, it worked."
It worked so well, in fact, that Zimmermann has the lowest ERA (2.35), best WHIP (1.09) and most innings pitched (122 1/3) of any Nationals starter this season.
Paul Hagen is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.