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Sitting Stephen Strasburg Is Safe, Shameful, and So So Stupid

Jeremy Bergman |
June 29, 2012 | 5:07 p.m. PDT

Staff Writer

Washington, D.C. The nation’s capital. A city where people from all across the country and around the world reside and coexist harmoniously, albeit with a few disagreements.

For instance, the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, the Obamacare bill that was just ruled constitutional by the Supreme Court on Thursday, had divided Capitol Hill and the entire city for nearly all four years of the Obama administration. The process to resolve the conflict was lengthy and difficult, but the bill was eventually ok’d, putting to bed the second hottest topic and second most polarizing issue around town.

What’s the first? The 2012 presidential race? The economy? Bath salts?

The new and fierce debate raging throughout the District of Columbia has nothing to do with the left wing of the government. Instead, the city is divided over the right arm of Nationals pitcher and Cy Young contender Stephen Strasburg.

Stephen Strasburg has pitched great this year, but may sit out the postseason. (Scott Ableman/Creative Commons)
Stephen Strasburg has pitched great this year, but may sit out the postseason. (Scott Ableman/Creative Commons)
Strasburg is having the best season of his young career, thriving in his role as Washington’s ace and leading the team to a 43-30 record, good for best in the National League.

(Thanks to Scott Ableman for the photos.)

The San Diego State phenom has posted a 2.60 ERA with a major league-leading tally of 118 strikeouts so far this year. He’s won nine games in the first half, including a recent four-hit shutout of the divisional rival and second-place Atlanta Braves, and has lost just two starts. He is clearly the best pitcher – and possibly, the best player – on the best team in the National League; and it is highly likely that we may not see him pitch in the postseason, whether the Nats make it or not.

The head honchos at Nationals camp are taking great caution with Strasburg. He is the rock of their club and their most important investment. Strasburg was so hyped up coming into the 2009 MLB Draft – and deservedly so – that when the Nationals drafted him No. 1 overall, they rewarded him with a $15.1 million contract, the most expensive rookie contract in baseball history.vWashington, a historically frugal franchise, is relying on Strasburg to be the face of the franchise and to lead the Nats to numerous titles for years to come. That’s why Washington GM Mike Rizzo and manager Davey Johnson are taking no chances with their ace and may shut him down for the rest of the season.

It has been speculated all year, and then officially reported at the beginning of June, that the Nationals are prepared to shut down Stephen Strasburg for the year – including the playoffs – if he hits his pitching limit of 160 innings, which would be around early September. Although Strasburg has been throwing fire this season, it was only two years ago in August of 2010 that he suffered a torn ulnar collateral ligament – or elbow joint, for you non-med school nerds – and underwent Tommy John surgery, a procedure that kept him out of baseball for a full year before returning to the bigs last September. In short, there are some concerns with his health.

But hear me out, Mr. Rizzo and Mr. Johnson. You would be making a huge mistake sitting your best player for the rest of the season and all of the potential postseason! 

Let’s look at why the Nationals are even in the position they are in right now, tops in the National League and first in the NL East, ahead of the Braves and – not a joke – the New York Mets by 3.5 games.

If Strasburg sits, Gonzalez would become the ace. Is he ready? (Scott Ableman/Creative Commons)
If Strasburg sits, Gonzalez would become the ace. Is he ready? (Scott Ableman/Creative Commons)

There’s no denying that Washington is dependent on its formidable rotation. The Nats boast the best ERA (3.11), the lowest opponent's batting average (.228), and the most quality starts (50) in the majors this year.

Last year, the pitching wasn’t half bad – ranking sixth overall in ERA and 15th in BAA – but the improvement in 2012 is startling, and that’s due mostly to the return of Strasburg and the acquisition of Gio Gonzalez, who is also putting up good numbers (2.78 ERA, 1.08 WHIP). But let’s not kid ourselves here – a Nationals rotation without Stephen Strasburg is not as threatening or impressive as one with him, especially in the playoffs. 

If and when the Nats make the postseason and choose not to pitch Strasburg, they’ll certainly have a problem on their hands. Instead of a potential four-man rotation of Strasburg, Gonzalez, Jordan Zimmermann, and Edwin Jackson that would scare the likes of offensively-challenged San Francisco and Atlanta from even showing up at the ballpark, Washington would have to use a three-man rotation made up of the remaining pitchers. This would result in a tired group of youngsters, almost all reaching the postseason for the first time in their blossoming careers. If the Nats front office doesn’t want to overwork Strasburg, then they shouldn’t want to overwork their three other starters by forcing them to potentially throw on four days rest repeatedly. 

Let’s say, for my argument’s sake, that the Nats rotation does fail them down the stretch and in the postseason. Will the Nats offense, “led” by the spry Bryce Harper, have their back? Think again.

While Washington’s pitching has been superb in 2012, its offensive production has been mediocre, to say the least.  The Nats are currently 24th in the majors in scoring (4.02 runs/game), 23rd in on-base percentage (.309), and 28th in least strikeouts (616).

Remember Washington’s huge free agent signing last year worth $126 million, Jayson Werth? Well, he and his .810 OPS are on the DL. (Interesting factoid: Werth broke his hand from manually counting all of his money.) Veteran Ryan Zimmerman is hitting a sad .235 on the season, accounting for only five HRs and 30 RBIs so far. Truly, the only bright spots for the Nats have come from SS Ian Desmond (13 HRs, 43 RBIs, .275 BA) and the golden Messiah himself Bryce Harper (8 HRs, 22 RBIs, .280 in only 55 games). Besides that pair, Washington’s hyped lineup has underachieved this year and will be their Achilles’ heel down the stretch. Safe to say, without Strasburg, the Nats cannot and should not rely on their lineup for any relief. 

Bryce Harper may be playing well, but the rest of the Nats offense? Not so much. (Scott Abelman/Creative Commons)
Bryce Harper may be playing well, but the rest of the Nats offense? Not so much. (Scott Abelman/Creative Commons)
Conclusion: If Strasburg is shut down, then the rotation will struggle. If the rotation struggles, the team will struggle. If the team struggles, then it may not make the postseason and will definitely not make the World Series.

That should be that. The argument should end there. But it doesn’t and it hasn’t. 

The counterpoint to all that I’ve put forth is that the Nats are thinking long-term; that Washington is more interested in protecting its interests for the future than in winning right now. While this point is solid and respectable, it reflects the stubbornness of the Nats front office and its lack of perspective.

Anyone remember the last time the Nationals franchise led the National League East at the end of the season? 1994. That’s nearly two decades ago – and the team didn’t even play its home games in America. The last time the Nationals – ahem, Montreal Expos – “won” the division, their best hitter was a youthful Moises Alou and their ace was a quiet up-and-comer named Pedro Martinez. I was in diapers watching "Rugrats" and "Sesame Street" on the regular the last time the franchise was even close to the postseason!

To make it even worse, the Nats didn’t even make the playoffs that year! How is it that a division-“winning” club doesn’t make the postseason? That happens when there is no postseason. The 1994 season was cut short at 114 games due to the players’ strike, leaving the '94 Expos frozen in time, six games ahead in the NL East and the best team in baseball history never to make the playoffs!

All right then, when was the last time the Washington franchise really won the division? You'd have to go back to 1981 when the Expos won their last – and only – NL East title. 1981! It's been 31 years since fans of the Expos and Nationals have even sniffed a postseason berth!

Why do I say all this? Why am I putting this Nationals season in a broad historical perspective? Because Nats fans may never see a season like this again. 

I know that the Nats are young and they are set up to be contenders every year from now on, but they play in the second most hotly-contested division in baseball. It’s not guaranteed that Washington will be atop its divison this late in the season every year.

The Nats need to capitalize on this opportunity. It’s not often that the Phillies suffer this many injuries in a season and see last-place futility on a day-to-day basis; Philadelphia had the best record in baseball just a season ago. It’s not often that the Braves get off a slow start with their young and productive club. Atlanta’s arrow is definitely pointing up, as are those of the struggling Marlins and the surprising Mets. It’s not often that half of your division underachieves while you sit pretty on top with an up-and-coming rotation in spite of weak offensive production. 

The Washington Nationals cannot afford to screw this up. For a franchise that hasn’t made the postseason in more than three decades, you’d think they would do whatever it takes to get back there as soon as possible. Apparently, they’ll take exception when the perfectly functioning and completely rehabilitated elbow of their ace gets in the way. Usually I could agree with the precautions that a team takes to protect an asset, but not when the potential benefits are so great. 

My advice to Washington: If you’re really so concerned about Strasburg’s innings, then have him skip starts. He can throw bullpen sessions. He can even work out of the bullpen. Heck, just put him in the Teddy Roosevelt costume and have him run the Presidents Race to keep up his cardio!

Just don’t shut him down! Your peers, your fans, your players, and I may never forgive you.


Reach Jeremy by email, or follow him on Twitter.



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