Some final thoughts Strasburg, the shutdown and scrutiny

So Stephen Strasburg has thrown his final pitch of the 2012 season, with the Nationals pulling the plug on their ace right-hander. We all knew it was coming - and have since general manager Mike Rizzo announced a strict though nebulous innings limit before spring training. It shouldn’t have come as a surprise, even though manager Davey Johnson’s Saturday morning announcement caught most people off guard, since the Nationals had previously said he’d pitch Wednesday at Citi Field.

Well, at least that’s the end of that, right? No more endless parade of talking heads on TV, radio talk show rants, newspaper columnists or water cooler workmates debating the merits of a contending team yanking its best pitcher from the rotation in the midst of a pennant race. It’s done. Over. Fini.

Not by a long shot. It may be #StrasNoMas on Twitter, but the conversation will rage on until at least the next time No. 37 hurls horsehide in anger at an opposing hitter.

Regardless of whether you agree with Rizzo’s plan to set an innings limit for Strasburg and stick to it, you have to admire his ability to not be swayed by most of the baseball universe, who think the GM is as crazy as beloved diamond clown Max Patkin in character. Seemingly everyone has expressed their opinion - from Strasburg to his Nationals teammates to rival players, from revered executives to retired players to anonymous scouts, from the physicians who perform Tommy John ligament replacement surgery to Tommy John himself - and most feel that Rizzo overreacted.

Unfortunately, we won’t know for a while. Maybe not until October, assuming the Nationals make the postseason (and create for themselves a whole new wave of Strasburg debate). Maybe not until next season, when a truer form of the pitcher, minus innings limits and the worry of reinjury, toes the rubber. Maybe not for a few years.

Stephen-Strasburg_Nats-Grey-Hangloose-wide.jpgWhatever your opinion of Rizzo’s strong-willed decision, we won’t know how this plays out until several seasons have passed. Only then will we know how Strasburg’s absence affected the Nats in the 2012 playoffs (cue “Land of Hope and Dreams” by Bruce Springsteen, a most appropriate anthem). Only then we will know if Strasburg’s high-torque delivery has held up or whether the inverted-W delivery that makes biomechanical analysts cringe has resulted in another arm injury or shoulder problems. Only then will we know whether the Nationals were a team built for multiple runs at October/November baseball or whether the glorious - but still unfinished - 2012 campaign was an aberration.

Until then, the constant chatter over Strasburg’s shutdown is like handicapping a baseball trade. It’s all well and good to offer an opinion over who got the better end of the deal, but it often takes a season or three to make a final, fair analysis. What looks one way now might not appear the same in 2015.

For the record, I’m in the minority. I think Rizzo’s conservative approach is well-reasoned, especially when you consider the millions of dollars the Nationals have invested in their prized pitcher. Yes, without Strasburg, the Nationals’ rotation isn’t as strong. But Rizzo has crafted this club in hopes that it could withstand such a loss. No one seemed to care a lick when Jordan Zimmermann made his final 2011 start on Aug. 28 because the Nationals were invoking a strict innings limit to protect their hurler in his first full season after Tommy John surgery. Zimmermann pitched 161 1/3 innings last year, two more than Strasburg this season, and the organization’s conservative approach wasn’t an issue because the Nats weren’t in a pennant race. Somehow, in a year, it became less important to think long-term about a player’s health and a franchise’s future.

This is not a decision that comes down to dollars and cents. The Nationals, assuming Strasburg remains healthy and productive, will have to pay the piper when Strasburg becomes eligible for free agency after the 2016 season. And if Rizzo is right, if Strasburg continues to pitch well (and better, like many Tommy John patients), the Lerner family will need to back up the Brinks truck in order to keep a curly W on his cap. The shutdown only delays the inevitable windfall.

Speaking to reporters Saturday at Nationals Park, Rizzo disputed Johnson’s assertion that the media frenzy surrounding Strasburg’s shutdown date accelerated the shutdown process. Both said they wouldn’t have done anything differently. It’s difficult to fathom that two guys with infield dirt running through their veins couldn’t have expected such intense scrutiny, and I think there is one thing Rizzo might have done differently over seven or so months (though both Johnson and Rizzo did a fantastic job of trying to act as lightning rods for criticism over the plan, a strategy that was supposed to allow Strasburg the luxury to go out and pitch without having to deal with additional pressure).

Back in February, Rizzo set this whole debate in motion by publicly announcing that there would be an innings limit, though not putting a firm number out for public consumption. Even if he was just following the template he used with Zimmermann, and meant to manage expectations, the Nationals’ success on the field made it much more difficult for the world not to take notice. Strasburg became the elephant in the room in all hopeful discussions of a ballclub’s success. Everyone knew the particulars of Rizzo’s plan, many thought he’d change course and allow Strasburg to continue to pitch, some even thought Rizzo was merely bluffing and had no intention at all of ending Strasburg’s season prematurely.

But what if Rizzo had played his cards even closer to his vest? What if he had said nothing at all about an innings limit? What if he had answered questions about how long Strasburg would pitch by telling inquiring minds, “He’ll tell us. He’s a special pitcher, a unique talent. If Stephen indicates to us that he can’t pitch to the level we expect and he expects, then we’ll re-evaluate.” What if he had watched Strasburg pitch into September, noticed the beginnings of physical fatigue and then decided that there was more harm than good in letting the right-hander’s season continue, no matter what the team’s record?

If that had happened, there would have likely been less constant speculation building to a crescendo as Strasburg’s innings mounted toward the perceived maximum. Without the increased scrutiny, there would have been less chance of the mental fatigue that caused Strasburg sleepless nights and the media circus might not have become a distraction in the clubhouse, as Johnson alleged. Yes, fans would have felt like the rug was pulled from under them - just like they did when the Nats rightfully pulled Strasburg from a start in his rookie season because of shoulder tightness, disappointing a lot of people who had come to see the phenom pitch. But Rizzo would have been able to present the same argument he’s offered since spring training: “We’re only doing what’s best for the player.” And no one could have said anything in dissent.

Now, every time John Lannan takes the mound and the Nationals don’t win, the debate will be rekindled. And Strasburg is put in the uncomfortable position of spectator in his own dugout, knowing that he can do nothing at all to help his team, outside of cheering them on. And for an ultra-competitive guy like Strasburg, who wants nothing more that to help his team win, that must feel like baseball purgatory.

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