Stephen Strasburg's Lack of Innings Limit Means More Than Starting Opening Day

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Stephen Strasburg's Lack of Innings Limit Means More Than Starting Opening Day
Al Messerschmidt/Getty Images

For the second time in as many seasons, Stephen Strasburg will stand on the bump for the Washington Nationals on Opening Day. MASN Sports’ Dan Kolko was the first who reported Strasburg getting the nod on Wednesday:

Over the course of the next few days and weeks, you will probably read plenty of reactions about this news. Reporters will ask how Strasburg feels about starting on Opening Day, Strasburg will respond with a cookie-cutter answer and everyone will go on about their day happy as can be.

Some will take Strasburg’s Opening Day distinction to exemplify the faith Davey Johnson has in the young right-hander. Some will even take the opportunity to break out their best Strasburg-related shutdown jokes, as ESPN’s Norman Chad did cleverly on Twitter:

But here is exactly what you can take from Strasburg being named Opening Day starter: He will start against the Miami Marlins on April 1. That’s it. Nothing else.

Strasburg standing on the bump on Opening Day was about as close to a foregone conclusion as you can come. He was one of the National League’s best starters last season prior to being shut down by the team, finishing with a 15-6 record, 3.16 ERA, 1.15 WHIP and 11.13 strikeouts per nine innings. No other Nationals pitcher boasts a similar skill set or was more consistently dominant.

Washington starting Strasburg on Opening day is about as shocking as CBS giving Chuck Lorre a deal for a new sitcom.

Al Messerschmidt/Getty Images

What’s more, being an “Opening Day” starter remains one of those pat-on-the-back honors that holds little significance over the course of the season. Theoretically speaking, both No. 1 and No. 2 starters get 33 starts compared to 32 for the remaining pitchers in a five-man rotation. But we all know that literally never happens. Managers shift rotations and skip starts constantly in an effort to adjust to season-long trends.

“Opening Day” starter is an honor—but it only gets remembered if you’re, you know, good. We remember “Opening Day” Strasburg, but what about “Opening Day” Odalis Perez and John Lannan?

There remains only one relevant Strasburg story from now until we can actually do some performance-based analysis: He’s free from the constraints of an innings limit.

Strasburg, who was shut down in September last season at the behest of the organization, will finally get to prove that he’s the superstar everyone thinks he is. The team has said there will be no innings limit this season, and Strasburg himself told ESPN’s Buster Olney that he plans on being a “workhorse in the rotation” and that his goal is throwing 200-plus innings.

All told, Strasburg is setting the bar pretty high for a kid who has thrown 251.1 career innings heading into this season. For all of the bluster about Strasburg becoming the game’s best pitcher someday, he’s still a young man with 45 starts and one Tommy John surgery under his belt.

This season remains very much a “prove it” year for Strasburg—along with just about every member of the Nationals organization.  

They were one of MLB’s most pleasant surprises in 2012, winning the NL East with a league-best 98-64 record, but the Nationals will walk into the 2013 season as one of MLB’s youngest teams. According to ESPN, they are the fifth-youngest team in baseball at 27.0 years and have no player on the roster currently over the age of 33. This is a team that’s built to compete long into the future—a fact that Washington consistently cited as a reasoning behind Strasburg’s innings limit in 2012.

It’s impossible to say that last season was a fluke. The Nationals have built arguably the best mix of talent young and semi-old in MLB, and walk into the 2013 season as the World Series favorite, per Bovada.com.

But the impetuous on Strasburg to be great this season is huge. The Atlanta Braves made massive upgrades throughout their roster this offseason and may well improve from their 94-win season a year ago.

And while the Nationals are indeed young, it’s hard to look at this upcoming season as anything less than an “all-in” push.

Evan Habeeb-USA TODAY Sports

Manager Davey Johnson is shifting to a consultant role following the 2013 campaign, and the front office made a push this winter to make sure the beloved 70-year-old skipper goes out on top. The team signed Rafael Soriano and added Denard Span via a trade, two medium-sized moves that shore up leaky spots on the roster.

And though Edwin Jackson, John Lannan and Tom Gorzelanny are gone, the Nationals replaced them quite seamlessly with their already-strong stable of arms and a high-risk, low-reward deal with Dan Haren.

Everyone in the beltway can live in a world of “what if” about last season all they want—and they have a right. The Nationals certainly had a better shot against the Cardinals with Strasburg than without. That was also a NL Wild Card Round matchup. It wasn’t the World Series or even the NLCS.

This season, the Nationals' fanbase and Strasburg will get their chance. The ace will pitch without restrictions for the first time since his Tommy John Surgery in 2010, and he’ll do so behind the most complete team in baseball.

This is exactly the type of team Nationals management envisioned Strasburg leading. No gaping holes whatsoever, a solid closer on the back end to finish the jobs and an experienced manager who desperately wants a ring.

All the pieces are in place, but one question remains: Can Strasburg be everything he’s expected over the course of a full season and postseason?

We’ll finally get a chance to find out in 2013. 

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