The Washington Nationals are twenty games over .500, are one of (if not the) best team in baseball and have a legitimate chance of winning the World Series. All of this would be fantastic, except, of course, for the surgically repaired ligament of the elephant in the room.
This leaves the baseball world to wonder, how good will this team be once Stephen Strasburg is shut down? Mike Rizzo, the Nationals GM, has said that Strasburg will be shut down early this year, as is proper for a pitcher returning from Tommy John surgery. The limit was originally thought to be 160 innings (the cap imposed on Nats starter Jordan Zimmermann when he returned from the same surgery) but is now thought to be 180 innings, which will still result in no Strasburg for the team’s playoff run.
If, or when, Strasburg is shut down will be the defining moment of Mike Rizzo’s baseball career.
Conventional thinking assumes that because of the Nationals' good, young core, keeping Strasburg on his innings limit is the prudent move. The Nationals may not be able to win it all this year without Strasburg’s arm, but having the pitching maestro anchoring the playoff rotation for years to come is worth the tradeoff.
Rizzo sees the Nationals as having a long championship window and is content to wait. Rizzo’s gamble may backfire, though, as championship windows have a way of shutting much faster than anticipated. The Seattle Mariners are a perfect example of this: the team never won anything, with what was once considered the best core in baseball (Randy Johnson, Alex Rodriguez, Ken Griffey Jr., and Edgar Martinez).
The Nationals similarly seem to have a great team now, but who knows how long their window will stay open. Franchise cornerstone Ryan Zimmerman is healthy right now, but injuries have plagued him throughout his career, with the start of this season being no exception. Baseball savant Bryce Harper is currently hitting pretty well, but its not uncommon for a hitter to start hot and then regress. Harper would not be the first rookie whiz kid incapable of living up to the hype. At 33, Jayson Werth’s decline could be imminent. It is far from certain that Adam LaRoche, with his team-leading 61 RBI, will be back next year.
The bullpen is regarded as one of this team’s great strengths, but relievers seem to have a way of magically losing their touch (Nationals fans need only remember the fate that befell flat-brimmed swag-machine Chad Cordero). Jordan Zimmermann and Gio Gonzalez are both fantastic, consistent, healthy young arms, but can they stay healthy and consistent? Zimmermann already had to go under the knife, and one only has to look at the pitfalls that have plagued Francisco Liriano to see that a few good seasons are not indicative of long-term success for a young pitcher.
With all this in mind, if the Nationals fall behind 2-1 in a playoff series, will Rizzo really be comfortable trotting out Ross Detwiler? It seems hard to fathom that the Nationals, in a pivotal game, would really start an inconsistent rookie while a dominant starter sat idle in the dugout.
Singular games seem to define baseball franchises for years. While the Orioles did indeed make the playoffs in 1997, many O’s fans consider the “Jeffrey Maier Game” from the 1996 playoffs to be the beginning of the franchise’s demise. Similarly, the “Steve Bartman Game” destroyed the notion that the Cubs were on the verge of a World Series breakthrough, and forced them to retake their mantle as baseball’s laughingstock. Rizzo could potentially be responsible for the “No Strasburg Game,” an incident of mismanagement that would be seared into the memory of Nationals fans for years to come.
In some way, the decision to play or not play Strasburg in the playoffs is a lose-lose for Rizzo. If the Nats pitch Strasburg and he tatters his surgically-repaired ligament, then Rizzo will be remembered as the man who destroyed what could have been the best pitcher the game has ever seen. If Rizzo sits Strasburg and the team loses in the playoffs, he will be remembered as the man who cost long-suffering Washington sports fans a rare, legitimate chance at a title.
Rizzo’s position is not an enviable one. Protecting the health of the franchise’s ace has been juxtaposed with appeasing fans of the club. Whatever the right call on Strasburg is, the wrong call would haunt Rizzo for the rest of his career.