Stephen Strasburg and the Surrender of the Washington Nationals

Todd McElweeCorrespondent IAugust 15, 2012

WASHINGTON, DC - JULY 31: Stephen Strasburg #37 of the Washington Nationals pitches against the Philadelphia Phillies at Nationals Park on July 31, 2012 in Washington, DC.  (Photo by Greg Fiume/Getty Images)
Greg Fiume/Getty Images

The sea is parting for the Washington Nationals, but general manager Mike Rizzo and the rest of the franchise’s brass is telling their Moses, star pitcher Stephen Strasburg, that he can’t lead them to the Promised Land.

Coming off Tommy John surgery, Strasburg will be voluntarily sidelined by the club somewhere around 160 innings. The controversial precautionary move does not guarantee the right-hander’s health in the years to come, but it does spell doom for Washington’s shot at a World Series title.

By benching Strasburg, Washington is surrendering—waving the white flag in the battle for the World Series. Rizzo and company are betting on sustained success at the expense of current greatness. The problem is that the two aren’t mutually exclusive. As of August 13, Strasburg is 13-5 with a 2.90 ERA, 133.1 innings pitched and 166 strikeouts. Based on his typical outing, he has about five starts remaining in accordance with Rizzo’s current plan.

Rizzo and Washington’s front office are betting on research promoting an innings limit for hurlers who have undergone Tommy John surgery. Unfortunately, their wager isn’t a sure thing, as nobody has been able to completely predict how any pitcher’s body is going to hold up, whether they’ve had the ubiquitous procedure or not. Like baseball men often do, Rizzo and company are relying too heavily on numbers instead of actually playing the game.

The Nationals should be cautious with their ace. Strasburg could be a centerpiece for a championship contender for years to come, with "could" being the vital word. The only certainty in sports is that there are no certainties. Once promising teams and players flame out without rhyme or reason. How many times did Dan Marino get back to the Super Bowl?

That’s why it's imperative for the Nationals to strike while the iron is hot.

Washington’s path to the World Series will never be easier. The National League has fallen into an abyss of mediocrity. Philadelphia is now a non-factor, but they will certainly reload in the near future.

The World Series champion St. Louis Cardinals, while still very competitive, will once again need to catch lighting in a bottle in order to be a serious threat. The Cardinals draft as well as anyone in the game and have little difficulty in attracting free agents to America’s best baseball town.

Cincinnati, Pittsburgh and Atlanta are hanging around the top of their respective divisions and the wild-card standings but are untested postseason entities.

That only leaves the 2010 World Series champion San Francisco Giants, who are without star closer Brian Wilson, and the Los Angeles Dodgers, who are finding it difficult to keep star centerfielder Matt Kemp healthy, to worry about. Now under stable ownership and with a solid young core, the Dodgers are going to be big fish in the free agent pool for years to come. Oh, and with Theo Epstein’s track record and Chicago’s checkbook, the Cubs will likely be a factor sooner than later.

With Strasburg as its centerpiece, Washington boasts not only the National League’s best team ERA, but also the senior circuit’s best outfit. Jordan Zimmerman, Gio Gonzalez and the rest of the staff are certified talents, but they’re not Strasburg. They can’t change a series with two or three dominating starts. Strasburg is the one asset no other team has.

He’s a game-changer.

Seam heads will present stat after stat about why to bench Strasburg. They’ll say he’s Washington’s future, why risk it? But is it a certainty that he is Washington’s future?

Strasburg and the Nationals went down to the wire with contract negations, finally agreeing to a four-year, $15.1 million deal with just over a minute remaining before the deadline in August 2009. Take a guess who Strasburg’s agent is.

As Strasburg’s contract winds down, you can bet agent Scott Boras won’t settle for anything less than the most lucrative deal ever for a pitcher. Boras won’t also be shy about telling Strasburg to depart from D.C. for more cash-heavy waters. Good thing there are three teams a few hours up I-95 who are willing to hand out obscene deals.

Strasburg could pitch well into October and still be fine for next season and beyond. He could also blow out his elbow warming up before his next start. You just can’t tell with a pitcher. The Nationals need to take off the kid gloves and let him do what they’re paying him to do: pitch. A World Series title—the District’s first since 1924—is within the Nationals reach.

They’re just too scared to go grab it.