Stephen Strasburg must be about ready to get back on a mound. That's as easy to gather by the amount of discussion about the right-handed thunderbolt as it is by looking at the upcoming schedule at Single-A Hagerstown. And somewhat surprisingly, there's almost as much chatter that the Nationals shouldn't use Strasburg this season as excitement about his return.
On his Sirius XM radio show yesterday, Rob Dibble criticized the Nationals for trying to bring Strasburg back this year, saying it wasn't worth using him for a handful of starts this year when the team has been focusing on 2012.
"They rushed Jordan Zimmermann back," Dibble said. "And just because these guys are younger, it doesn't change the fact that for the most part, the majority of Tommy John guys, it takes them 18 months to 24 months to be 100 percent. Now, you may feel great, you've got a new tendon in there, new ligament, all that kind of stuff. You've gotten the injury fixed. But there's absolutely no reason, other than to sell tickets and to put butts in the seats, to bring Stephen Strasburg back to make a few starts at the end of the season. He's too valuable, he's too talented to even think about stuff like that."
(This, of course, was the same guy who went on the same Sirius XM show last year and told Strasburg to "suck it up and pitch" when he hurt his elbow in the first place.)
It's going to be tough to convince the Nationals what they did with Zimmermann didn't work, though, especially when he has a 3.12 ERA in 21 starts this year and has progressed even farther than the Nationals expected him to. Zimmermann said in spring training that once he'd made a few starts in the majors, gotten used to the workload again and let his arm rest in the offseason, he finally felt back to normal. And toward the end of September, he started to look like himself again.
I talked about this on the Mid-Atlantic Sports Report yesterday, but what we see from Strasburg in September might not be what we see from him in 2012. That doesn't make the step of getting him back to the majors less important, though. Assuming he's back in early September, he'll get to make another four or five starts, instead of ending his season when the minor league season wraps up on Sept. 5. Zimmermann threw no more than 86 pitches in any of his starts, but he worked six innings twice, and added another 31 innings to his workload. He also was able to test out his delivery with his new elbow ligament against major league hitters, and after a trio of rough starts in September, he ended the year looking strong, allowing just two earned runs in his final 11 innings.
Strasburg's stuff, of course, is even more dynamic than Zimmermann's when he's at his best, and even though he might have some adjustments to make, there's no reason to think he can't draw a similar benefit from pitching in the majors in September. And as careful as the Nationals were with him last year, Strasburg still got hurt. All they can do is try to move him forward as properly as they can.
Think about the alternative: The Nationals would like Strasburg to be their opening day starter next year. Would they be as willing to do that if he hasn't thrown a pitch in a major league game in more than 19 months? Bringing him back is as much about preparing for 2012 as anything else. They'll sell some tickets, to be sure, but more importantly, he'll get a preliminary test of what he'll be facing in 2012.
If that goes as well as it did with Zimmermann, they could really reap the benefits in 2012.