Shortened spring could really hinder Nats’ pitching prep

There’s a prevailing sense around the baseball world right now that a delayed start to spring training wouldn’t necessarily mean a delayed start to the regular season. If owners and players can work out a deal on a new collective bargaining agreement by late February, it would be possible to shorten camps from six weeks to four weeks, or (gulp) maybe even three weeks and still wrap things up in time to begin the season March 31 as scheduled.

This, of course, all makes sense. Does spring training really need to last six weeks? No. And even those who would prefer the full month and a half of prep time in Florida and Arizona would concede they’d rather shorten camps in exchange for an on-time and full 162-game regular season.

That doesn’t mean this would be a particularly welcome scenario for the Nationals, though. Perhaps more than in previous years, the 2022 Nats really would benefit from a full spring.

Why? Because of all the pitching questions they’re going to have upon reporting to West Palm Beach, none of them more important than the return of Stephen Strasburg from thoracic outlet surgery.

We still don’t know exactly how Strasburg is progressing in his rehab from last summer’s procedure, but it’s safe to say he would benefit more than anyone from a full six-week camp. The right-hander has a bunch of hurdles to clear before he’s assured of starting opening day, and those hurdles need to be taken step by step and can’t be rushed.

baseballs-in-bin-sidebar.jpgStrasburg needs to start throwing off a mound, and do that every other day with no issues. Then he needs to face live hitters in a controlled environment multiple times. Then he needs to start pitching in exhibition games and build his arm back up from, say, 30-35 pitches in his first outing to at least 85-90 pitches in his final start.

That’s what it takes for a starter to get ready for the season. Are there some shortcuts that can be utilized along the way? Sure. But you only utilize those shortcuts if you’re 100 percent healthy, not if you’re recovering from major surgery.

And given the position the Nationals will be entering the season, they’re not about to rush Strasburg back. They have to continue to think long-term with him, even if it means holding him back come opening day if he needs more time.

Strasburg may be the most significant example, but he’s not alone in this regard.

Joe Ross, attempting to return from a partial tear of his elbow ligament without having surgery, is going to need time to build his arm back up and ensure he’s healthy enough to open the season as scheduled.

And Will Harris, who had his own thoracic outlet surgery earlier in 2021, is going to need time to get himself fully ready to return to the active roster. (Though as a reliever, he wouldn’t need as much time as Strasburg to build his arm back up once he’s deemed healthy.)

Those are injury-related reasons for the Nationals to prefer a full spring training. There will be competitive reasons, too, again mostly related to the pitching staff. This team is probably going to report to camp with more jobs up for grabs than they’ve had in more than a decade.

There will be at least one, maybe more, undecided rotation spots at the outset of spring training. And there will be several bullpen jobs to be won or lost from a host of contenders.

Club evaluators will prefer as much time as possible to watch every one of those pitchers take the mound and make their cases for a spot on the opening day roster. And if the Grapefruit League schedule is condensed down to three weeks or less, it’s going to be tough to get enough guys enough work to make legitimate evaluations.

Look, if it takes a shortened spring to ensure an on-time 162-game season, so be it. Everyone will have to accept the trade-offs for such a scenario.

But of all the years to consider that possibility, this sure wouldn’t be the one the Nationals would choose to test out a short spring training.

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