What if ... Stephen Strasburg hadn’t gotten hurt?

Welcome to a special Thursday edition of “What If?” Wednesdays, where we look at how things might have worked out differently for the Nationals if some event had worked out differently. And our installment this week, if I do say so myself, was worth waiting for, since it’s probably one you have daydreamed about yourself: What if Stephen Strasburg hadn’t gotten hurt?

We all know what happened: Strasburg was cruising through what might have been his best start in the major leagues on Aug. 21, 2010, slicing through the Phillies’ formidable lineup and silencing a capacity crowd at Citizens Bank Park. Even now, Nationals general manager Mike Rizzo talks about Strasburg’s stuff that day in reverential tones; the 22-year-old was determined to shut down the Phillies in front of their home fans, and through 4 1/3 innings, he was doing just that. He’d struck out six batters, giving up just two hits and one run.

One Nationals source said Phillies players later told him they were almost resigned to defeat that day; one after another would come back to the dugout, shaking his head and saying, “Not today, boys.”

But in the fifth inning, Strasburg threw a changeup to Domonic Brown, immediately stepped off the mound and shook his arm like he’d touched a hot burner on a stove. The Nationals took him out of the game as a precaution, even though Strasburg petitioned to stay in the game. And afterward, according to a source, they couldn’t believe the injury was anything serious - not after Strasburg passed a test for a torn ulnar collateral ligament that was supposed to be so painful, there was no way for a player to pretend he was fine if he’d torn his elbow ligament.

The initial diagnosis of a strained flexor tendon, of course, turned into the revelation that Strasburg indeed had a torn UCL and would need Tommy John surgery. After reeling at the shock of the initial diagnosis, Strasburg threw himself into his rehab and came back in his typical precedent-setting fashion, posting a 1.50 ERA in five starts this September and striking out 24 batters in 24 innings just 12 1/2 months after the operation.

He was so good, both last August and this September, that it’s worth conjecturing this question: If Strasburg had stayed healthy, would the Nationals have been in the playoff picture?

That’s not as ludicrous as it initially sounds. Washington finished the year with the eighth-best record in the National League, 9 1/2 games out of the wild card spot, but went 80-81 without a pitcher who threw more than 184 1/3 innings or posted a Wins Above Replacement (WAR) score better than 3.4. In just five starts, Strasburg had a WAR of 1.1, just ahead of Drew Storen and behind Tyler Clippard.

Let’s say Strasburg finishes the 2010 season healthy, throwing the 160 innings the Nationals had planned for him to pitch between the majors and minors that year, and comes to spring training ready for a full campaign of around 185-190 innings. He’s got a 162-game average right now of 184 innings, 232 strikeouts and a 2.54 ERA, and while it’s tough to imagine he would have been able to keep up at that pace if hitters caught onto him, it’s also scary to think about how good he’ll be once he’s got enough institutional knowledge to set hitters up.

Would that have been enough to put the Nationals in the playoff race? It’s hard to say for sure, but it probably would have at least made things interesting into September. If Strasburg adds four or five wins to the final tally - and if a couple of those wins come against the Braves or the Cardinals - the Nationals are 85-76, probably finishing four or five games out of the wild card. The 2011 Nationals, in the end, were done in by a lack of offense, particularly at the top of the lineup, more than anything else. But even if Strasburg hadn’t gotten Washington into the playoffs this year, he would have teamed with Jordan Zimmermann to create one heck of a buzz heading into 2012.

He’ll still do that coming off his return from surgery, but the shame in the whole thing for the Nationals is that they still won’t have a full season of Strasburg until 2013. He’ll be on a closely-guarded innings limit next season, though it figures he will take the ball on opening day at Wrigley Field in April. The Nationals’ best chance for a playoff run is with Strasburg and Zimmermann leading their rotation, and they’re in the market for another pitcher this winter largely because they know they’re not going to get workhorse-level contributions from Strasburg yet.

But a full season of Strasburg in 2011 would have been fun to watch, and it would have the Nationals feeling even better going into 2012 than they already do.

What do you think would have happened if Strasburg had stayed healthy? Would it have made a big enough difference to push the Nationals into playoff contention?

And as a brief aside - in case you haven’t heard on Twitter yet - tomorrow will be my last day at MASNsports.com; I’ve accepted a job covering the Minnesota Wild and Twins for the St. Paul Pioneer Press, and I’ll be moving to Minnesota to get started there next week. As great of a run as it’s been for me here, there’s no substitute for being home and writing for the paper that helped me get started as an intern from the University of Minnesota. I’ll have more thoughts on that tomorrow.

For now, though, we’re still talking Nationals. So leave your thoughts on Strasburg in the comments section and let me know what you think.