Let me walk you through a purely hypothetical scenario. Let’s say we have a team on the brink of elimination in the first round of the playoffs, and they have one of the top starting pitchers in baseball, healthy and well rested. Wouldn’t that team be wise to throw everything they have into saving their season and advancing further into the playoffs, especially if they won 98 games during the year and have the on-paper talent to win it all?
Assuming you missed the headline and failed to pick up on the hypothetical scenario described above, the team I’m talking about is the Washington Nationals, and the pitcher is Stephen Strasburg. Make no mistake about it, either: despite being only 251 innings into his Major League career, Strasburg has already cemented his place as one of the very best pitchers in the game. The Nationals, after finishing the year with baseball’s best record, are sticking to their all-year long promise of limiting him to a certain number of innings.
In a way, it’s perfectly understandable for the organization to hold firm on the issue. One might even say it’s admirable. They recognize the talent they have in the 24-year-old, who enjoyed his first All-Star election earlier this season, and they aren’t willing to risk jeopardizing his future for the here and now. Essentially, Washington is heavily invested in the Strasburg stock, and they’re more interested in sitting back and watching the dividends flow in for years rather than cashing it in and seeing it help their situation right now. This is a solid, fundamentally sound approach, but now there’s just one caveat: who’s to say they’ll ever have another situation like this?
After all, the Nationals are good, and it’s not likely they’re going anywhere after 2012, but there are never any guarantees. They may be a very good team over the next decade and still end up missing the playoffs every year. Yes, Strasburg is in his first season following Tommy John surgery, but there were no indicators that he was slowing down in the final months, and his team really needs him now.
This isn’t to say the Nationals can’t advance to the NLCS without him; all they have to do is win two straight games at home. That’s not exactly impossible odds right there. But how much better do you like their chances if they can throw Strasburg out there today for game four? A game five seems very likely in such a scenario, and then they have Gio Gonzalez for the fifth and decisive game. If I’m a Cardinals fan — and I am — the prospect of beating those two pitchers on the road is downright terrifying, and the 2-1 series lead means almost nothing. Nothing against Ross Detwiler, a fine young pitcher, but it’s really Strasburg the Nationals should be turning to.
At the end of the day, I get that Washington is just showing proper caution with a very valuable young arm. Admittedly, if they wavered now and threw him out there in the heat of the moment, they might even look foolish for being so rigorous about the issue all season long. I’m not saying their approach is without reason; I just think it’s going overboard. Limit his innings, sure; protect your assets — to an extent. If you want to save Strasburg’s arm and hold him out of his last few starts of the regular season, when the race was pretty much wrapped up anyway, fine.
Making the post-season is an entirely different matter, however. The Nationals have a legitimate shot of being the last team standing in 2012. They need every edge they can get, particularly when we’re talking about a talent that contributed 4.3 WAR in under 160 innings this season. In short, they need Stephen Strasburg, and while doing it their way may give them a better chance of keeping him healthy, they may not ever again have the chance to leverage his talent in such an important position.