Innings limit or not, Stephen Strasburg is the focal point in the Nationals' 2012 rotation. Much will be made about Gio Gonzalez's arrival in the National League, whether Jordan Zimmermann can build on his breakthrough season, whether Edwin Jackson will perform enough in D.C. to get the big-money, long-term contract he covets and how well Chien-Ming Wang will hold up to the test of a full season in the starting five.
Strasburg? Mention the right-hander with the arsenal that runs the gamut from batter-freezing changeups to triple-digit heat, and residents of NatsTown smile in anticipation of what's to come now that Strasburg is slated for a full season following his partial 2011, thanks to recovery from Tommy John ligament replacement surgery.
The enthusiasm is a bit tempered because it's unknown just how many innings Strasburg will pitch and, therefore, how long he'll be in the rotation before the Nats shut him down as a precaution. They don't want to overwork him coming off Tommy John, the same strategy they used when Zimmermann was coming back from the same procedure in 2010. You can debate the merits of the conservative approach, wondering how it will impact the Nationals should they remain in contention, but there will be an innings limit. That's a given.
Right now, an over/under of about 160 innings has been established for Strasburg. This is based on the fact that Zimmermann logged 161 1/3 innings last season, which is convenient to use as a template but doesn't take into consideration Strasburg's penchant for dominant performances and quick innings. Because he's more pitch-efficient, I wouldn't be surprised to see Strasburg get some leeway - maybe closer to 170 innings, perhaps a tad more - so the real question becomes how many innings will Strasburg pitch and how will the Nationals parse out those innings to maximize the amount of time they've got him in the rotation.
If the Nationals held Strasburg to five innings an outing, he could cram 32 starts into a 160-inning limit. That would take Strasburg into September, and that would certainly help his drawing power for home games, which were more well-attended than those dates started by others in the past. But it wouldn't get Strasburg deep into September - or into the postseason, should the Nationals contend. And there are doubts that all of Strasburg's vaunted energy and intensity could be harnessed into shorter stints. For example, can you imagine the discussion between manager Davey Johnson and his burgeoning ace when the skipper has to remove Strasburg in a 1-1 game on a day when the Nationals aren't hitting and Strasburg is handcuffing the opposition? It wouldn't be pleasant. Nor would balancing the team's need to protect the pitcher against his competitive desire when he has almost half a game less time to factor into a decision.
Maybe the Nationals want to just get creative with the rotation, juggling the placement of starting pitchers throughout the season to squeeze a few extra starts out of Strasburg. This would be pretty easy - make him the No. 4 or No. 5 starter and then use the occasional off day as a planned respite from pitching (while still letting Strasburg go through all of his normal between-starts routines). Save a couple of starts in the first half of the season, use the All-Star break as another breather and have Strasburg start the fourth or fifth game back from the break - that might push him a little further into the season's waning weeks. Early in the season, the Nats could hold him back from pitching in places where the weather might be cold and damp - say, that opening series in Chicago from April 5-8. If Strasburg skipped Wrigley's raw and windy conditions, the rest of the rotation could take advantage of the April 6 scheduled off day, cover the rest of the games in Chicago and in New York against the Mets, then have Strasburg available for the first home series, perhaps as the starting pitcher at the April 12 home opener against the Reds.
One other option could be letting Strasburg pitch on regular rest throughout most of the first half, then shut him down for the final few days before the All-Star break and the first series or so after. The Nationals have a six-game homestand against the Giants and Rockies before the break and open the second half with a four-game visit to Miami. July 2 is a scheduled off day, and taking off those three series around the break could be the equivalent of a stint on the 15-day disabled list - or two or three starts. Teams have used this tactic to protect rookie pitchers in the past - the Tigers did something similar with then-20-year-old Rick Porcello in his rookie season in 2009, when he made 31 starts and took off from July 6-20, then made 14 more starts on pretty much his regular schedule. And while we're talking about midseason, don't expect to see Strasburg in the Mid-Summer Classic, even if the Nationals have to manufacture a tired arm to get around the tighter participation rules contained in the new collective bargaining agreement.
Another method would be to employ a six-man rotation (as reader CurlyDubs pointed out on Twitter after this entry was posted). This is an interesting proposition, but not out of the realm of possibility, especially since the Nationals have been dutifully collecting starting pitchers this offseason and now have at least seven or eight arms capable of taking the ball every fifth, er, sixth day. But this solution is problematic - Gonzalez, Zimmermann and Wang really need to be pitching every fifth day and it might be a bit of a nightmare to remake the between-outings regiment to accommodate a six-man rotation. Still, if the Nats' pitching staff were constructed with enough flexibility, six starters used sparingly through the season might be enough to extend Strasburg closer to the end of the regular season.
Johnson, pitching coach Steve McCatty and general manager Mike Rizzo have probably already outlined some plan of attack to get the most out of Strasburg without overtaxing his surgically repaired right elbow. They'll act with his best interests in mind, looking at the big picture rather than immersing themselves in immediate gratification. It will be difficult to rein in Strasburg's warrior mentality, nor do the Nats want to entirely. But they will be balancing his short-term health with their long-term goals, and that's probably a wise course of action.
Follow Pete Kerzel on Twitter: @kerzelpete