We all know about the phenom Stephen Strasburg’s 160-inning pitching limit. Whether you agree with it or not, it appears that—give or take 10 innings or so—general manager Mike Rizzo and manager Davey Johnson seem intent on sticking to their guns on this ridiculous, self-imposed folly.
Limiting innings is wrong on so many levels
First off, the limit cheats the fans who, according to ESPN’s John Saunders two weeks ago on The Sports Reporters, haven’t seen a postseason game in the nation’s capital since 1933. When you combine this with the fact that this team used to be the Montreal Expos from 1977 to 2004 and that Washington also had the original Senators from 1900-1960 and again from 1962-1972, that says it all.
It can be argued that, outside of the overrated and frankly annoying Chicago Cubs fans for their profitability off their losing (look at the zoo that Wrigleyville has always been or the fact they get a disproportionate number of televised games), no fanbase is more deprived of a winner than the one saddled with the long and pitiful history of baseball in D.C.
The thing with these playoff runs is that you never know how many you are going to get, nor when the next one might be. Some fans, including myself, believe that rookie sensation Bryce Harper is just auditioning for his big payday with Boston or, more likely, the damn New York Yankees down the road. Others note that Johnson himself is 69 and on a one-year contract, and doesn’t have much time left as the best manager this franchise has seen in its eight-year return to the nation’s capital.
Next, there is no precedent for what the Nationals are doing here. Their argument, which was recently revealed in an ESPN interview a few days ago with Johnson, is to handle Strasburg the same way they did No. 2 pitcher Jordan Zimmermann, who also had Tommy John surgery and recovered quite nicely.
The problem is that's just one case—not all cases of Tommy John are the same, as some players may take longer or shorter to recover. Several pitchers undergo this procedure every year, and I’ve never heard of, nor do I remember, a situation quite like this of a team being so careful it would actually shut its best player down for the rest of the season, playoffs included, just to protect him in the future.
Again, Strasburg is around to win ballgames and to get his team to the playoffs and beyond. To shut him down would be telling the fans, “Hey, we made it this far—the rest is up to you and the players. Good luck.” Should the team lose in the first round in five games, fans will always wonder “What if.” Should this be the Nats' only run as a one-year wonder team, the fans will always wonder “What if” and “If only...”
You want to play and win with your best players, and as former New York Jets coach Herm Edwards famously said, “You play to win the game!” Should the Nationals actually shut Strasburg down, they are giving the finger to the fans all in the name of protecting a free-agent-to-be who apparently owes nothing to the fans or the franchise to which he means everything.
Strasburg doesn’t owe the Nationals anything, but he should
Now for the heart of the thesis here. I know Strasburg, being a California native, doesn’t owe the Nationals anything. He’s a professional, and he’s going to follow some combination of where the money is best and where he has the best chance to win. Should the Nats shut him down, Strasburg will see firsthand that this team isn’t doing everything it can to win.
What if Washington were to strike it big in free agency the next two years with all the money it has and find itself in a similar playoff push with Strasburg or another fragile phenom or prized free agent, only to shut that player down again? That would be setting a dangerous precedent.
By handling Strasburg with kid gloves, the Nats are basically gambling that Strasburg’s loyalty and gratitude for prolonging his career will trump other markets and other offers in free agency, and he’ll return the favor by staying. That is beyond delusional, though I hope that is exactly what happens. Strasburg is represented by Super Agent Scott Boras, who always gets the best deal and the most money for his players. The Nationals have to know it's going to cost them nearly everything they have just to keep this kid and likely are banking on it, no pun intended, with their massive cash reserves and projected future payrolls.
I really wish the Nats would (or could) take a page from the Tampa Bay Rays' handbook and sign Strasburg now, similar to what the Rays did with Matt Moore and Evan Longoria shortly after each player's major league debut, but that’s not Boras’ M.O., and there is no way he’d ever allow that to happen, for good reason. He knows what a cash cow Strasburg is and will continue to be.
It is in this same fashion that the Baltimore Orioles should have already locked up Jim Johnson and Matt Wieters (another Boras client) before they leave. Doing it with Adam Jones was a good call, at least.
You know that old saying “if you don’t use it, you lose it” that is so applicable to many things in life? If the team was smart, it’d burn Strasburg up the same way the Milwaukee Brewers did with CC Sabathia in their half-season rental three years ago before they knew they were losing him to another, bigger market. I realize there are two differences here: Sabathia was not coming off of Tommy John surgery and he is built like a horse, whereas Strasburg is not far from surgery and rail-thin to boot.
But if the Nationals don’t use Strasburg while they have him, and worse yet, preserve him for his future club to get all the more mileage out of him, they are going to wish they had. Do you think the Boston Red Sox, Anaheim Angels or Yankees would waste time considering such a foolish innings outcome? No, they’d use this guy’s talents just like I am advocating, and the heck with the consequences. They would, however, have the ability to simply mulligan that error by writing another blank check to any future free agent and buy him.
Imagine these ridiculous scenarios
We all have seen the ESPN graphic of Strasburg’s projected innings: September 12 (160); September 19 (170); September 29 (180). The Nationals are going to make the playoffs barring some crazy meltdown or a slew of injuries so they can afford to skip a start or two for Strasburg. They had that luxury of doing so well in the months prior to now, so why aren’t they using this advantage?
Can you imagine if the Nationals win the division and host a playoff game against the Los Angeles Dodgers only to be forced to go with Zimmerman in Game 1 of a playoff game because “Gosh darn it, we can’t use Strasburg, who's perfectly healthy, mind you, and well-rested, because of this ridiculous limit we set” and they lose the game and ultimately the series?
Why, the Dodgers would be wise to send them a thank-you card and gift basket for giving them that series. Can you imagine the Yankees telling Sabathia “We can’t go with you in Game 1 versus the Angels because, you know, you had surgery last August and we don’t want to hurt you because we might need you in 2013, 2014 and beyond.”
Again, that’s giving the opposition a better chance to win and cheating the fans. Not only that, but nothing is preventing the player from simply saying “Thanks!” and leaving, healthy arm intact to his next free-agent destination, while the Nationals wonder, dropped-jaws and all, where everything went wrong.
Where it would go wrong is if they didn’t use him while they had him, and no able-bodied competitive player wants to simply sit on the bench and watch helplessly when he doesn’t have to. If Strasburg leaves it will be because of the stupid way this team handled this situation by over-hyping it. If he gets hurt, so be it. That’s his job—to go out there and play. Ever heard of the phrase “leaving it all on the field”? As a player, it's all about the playoffs, where, from there, anything is possible.
Can you imagine if this is truly a one-year run? (I have my doubts.) Hypothetically, consider if it is. Historians will look back and say, “Remember that year the Nationals were so good (1994 Expos, anyone?)...and they shut down their best player on the hope and prayer that he’d reward them by re-signing two years later and he never did?”
Can you imagine how bad he'd look? He'd come across looking really selfish. What I can't understand is what sort of guarantee do the Nationals think they have with this kid? What if shutting him down as he is "so important to the future of the franchise" ends up only meaning another franchise, rendering all of this planning for the future for naught?
That’s the risk the Nats are running. I’m just glad I don’t have to sell that fairytale to my fanbase. If this all goes up in smoke the team risks losing a lot more than Strasburg by alienating him, they risk losing a hungry and patient fanbase along with the start of what could have been something special—all for simply not knowing “What might have been?” Talk about being cheated.
I really hope the Nats and their fans aren't left wondering like the Cinderella heavy-metal band said it best: "You don't know what you've got till it's gone." But I fear that could be the case if the Nats continue to mismanage this.
I can see the E:60 or 30 for 30 future documentaries now: “A dynasty that never was” or “The Almost dynasty.” When it matters most, healthy players should play.