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Shutting Down Stephen Strasburg on the Brink of Brilliance Is a Mistake

MIAMI GARDENS, FL - SEPTEMBER 26:  Stephen Strasburg #37 of the Washington Nationals cheers during a game against the Florida Marlins at Sun Life Stadium on September 26, 2011 in Miami Gardens, Florida.  (Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images)
Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images
Tom MechinAnalyst ISeptember 5, 2012

The decision has been officially made. Stephen Strasburg will be shut down—”sat down” according to National’s General Manager Mike Rizzo—following his next start. Washington's coaching staff has  decided to rely on what they consider medical evidence that if Strasburg continues pitching this season, he will seriously jeopardize the health of his right arm. 

However, as the calendar turns to September and another summer comes to an end, the baseball pennant race is just starting to heat up.

If last year taught us anything, it is that nothing is guaranteed: not trips to the playoffs for the teams out front, and not rounds on the golf course for those facing large deficits.

It’s doubtful that at this time last year anyone—not even Tony LaRussa—would have believed the St. Louis Cardinals would have another championship banner hanging at Busch Stadium III.

Just as many would have bet the farm that both the Braves and the Red Sox would have been competing in October baseball, but that was not meant to be, either.

Which brings us back to the 2012 season and the ramifications of the Washington Nationals’ decision to shut down their ace.

It has been somewhat of a dream season in the nation’s capital, with the hometown team displaying prowess and ability not shown by a baseball team in Washington since before the New Deal.

Taking away what is perhaps the team’s best player is asinine. 

I am well aware of what the doctors have said. I have read and reread Tom Verducci’s columns on Sports Illustrated that clearly spell out what tends to happen to young pitchers who experience a significant increase in their year-to-year innings totals. 

 

However, I do not care.

The future is now with Washington, and there are no guarantees for Strasburg’s future health regardless of how many innings he throws in 2012.

Like it or not (being a Phillies fan, I do not), the Washington Nationals have the chance to do something special this season: win the World Series. They are baseball’s best, deepest and and most consistent team, and that all starts with their dynamic rotation, headed by Stephen Strasburg.

In recent days, there have been many comparisons made between Strasburg and the Cubs' Mark Prior during the early 2000s. In his age-22 season, Prior essentially doubled his innings total from the previous season, and despite having what was once described as “perfect mechanics,” he has never been the same pitcher.

In the time since Prior threw his last major league pitch—more than seven years ago—he has battled through numerous injuries and bounced around the minor leagues. If Mark Prior is ever successful in his attempts to return to the major leagues, he will do so as a dime-a-dozen middle reliever, not the phenom he once was.

The Nationals, with all they have invested in Strasburg—both financially and emotionally—do not want him to follow a similar path. If they were playing .500 baseball and struggling to stay competitive in an effort to build toward the future, shutting down Strasburg would make more sense.

However, in the midst of a magical season in Washington, with everything they have ever worked for staring them in the face, it is foolish to force your best pitcher to become only a well-paid observer during the team’s most important games they may ever play. 

 

Strasburg will not pitch in critical games down the stretch or in October when it is all on the line. They may win the World Series, anyway, with a staff led by Gio Gonzalez and Jordan Zimmermann.

And then, Strasburg comes back next season, picks up where he left off and embarks on a Hall of Fame career. Or, Washington could falter in October and Strasburg could blow out his arm next spring, never living up to his potential, and a season could be thrown down the drain for nothing. 

In today’s game, players—and especially pitchers—are more fragile than ever and more likely to break down than at any point in history. With all the modern medicine available, why have sports players taken significant steps back and been unable to match what their counterparts of 20, 30 and 40 years ago were able to do? 

Limiting Strasburg’s increase in innings year to year may end up being the best course of treatment for their best, if fragile, pitcher.

The Yankees attempted it with Joba Chamberlain, and it didn’t work. He has already blown out his elbow once and has not shown the promise of his rookie season at any point since Roger Clemens left the Bronx. The Cubs pushed Mark Prior, and he has never been the same because of it.

With young pitchers, it’s just impossible to know which course of treatment is correct. 

However, if Prior or any Cubs fan were asked if they would be willing sacrifice the potentially brilliant career Prior was destined for in return for a World Series Championship—something that was clearly a possibility had he managed to get out of that eighth inning in Wrigley Field a lifetime ago—it’s doubtful anyone would have shut down Prior in early September.

The potential for risk is real; Strasburg might blow out his arm from overuse, but the tradeoff of a World Series Championship is worth risk.

Let the kid pitch!!

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