If the Nationals’ handling of Stephen Strasburg before and up to the point he arrived in the majors was a neatly groomed process, the approach to how they handle him once he gets there is more of an abstractionist art, shaded and tinted one way or the other by rainouts, matchups, aches and pains, always subject to some revision.
That’s particularly true as the Nationals head into the second phase of their plan for Strasburg’s first season in the majors, one they don’t have completely figured out yet. They’ve known all along how they would handle Strasburg through the All-Star break. But that protocol runs out after Friday’s start against the Giants, soon to be replaced by a new one the Nationals are crafting as they go.
The latest evidence of that came on Wednesday, when manager Jim Riggleman hinted that the Nationals, instead of having Strasburg pitch all the way through September like they’d originally planned, will now keep him on a regular schedule and shut him down in early September when he hits his innings limit for the season.
The Nationals had initially planned to keep Strasburg going through the season’s final month, but are shying away from that now as it become apparent how difficult it would be to put Strasburg on an irregular schedule and balance out the rest of their rotation.
“We’re less concerned right now about him pitching all the way through September,” manager Jim Riggleman said. “Rather than have a 160-inning total, something in that area, we’d have to back him off twice to have him pitch in late September. Rather than do that, we’d probably just go ahead and pitch him on his fifth day, sometimes on his sixth day.”
Strasburg has thrown 36 2/3 innings in six big-league starts, as well as 55 1/3 in the minors. That puts him at 92 innings for the year, which will probably go to 98 or 99 after he faces the Giants on Friday.
The Nationals plan to have Strasburg cap out around 160 innings for the season, meaning he’d have about 60 left after the All-Star break. At six innings a start, that would give Strasburg 10 second-half outings. That would likely mean he’d make his final appearance of the year sometime in the first week of September - possibly in Pittsburgh against the Pirates, who faced him in his major-league debut.
“The further we move him back after the All-Star break, that’s further we can use him into the season,” Riggleman said. “Things happen to change it all up - you pitch three innings, and it rains, and he’s done for the day. He doesn’t pitch again for five days and he only pitched three innings. Those things are out of our control. But I think no matter how you mix it up, the innings probably would be eaten up by early September.”
It’s worth asking whether the Nationals would be more concerned with rationing Strasburg’s innings if they were closer to the playoff hunt. As it appears now, they’ll roll him on a normal schedule until his innings run out.
Riggleman said the Nationals have a scenario where Strasburg could pitch the first series after the break in Florida or wait until the team goes to Cincinnati to make his first start. The only pitcher the Nationals could keep on his regular schedule is Livan Hernandez, who pitches the last game of the first half on Sunday and could come back to start the first game of the second half next Friday.
But the rest of the Nationals’ starters will have their schedules altered somewhat. It’s just that no one knows exactly how that lines up yet.