Stephen Strasburg was the highest-profile pitcher to be shut down early in a season due to a team-imposed innings limit. The 24-year-old made his 28th and final start of the 2012 season on September 7th with his team leading the NL East by 6.5 games.
Not having Strasburg, who finished with 15 wins and a 3.16 ERA, to start five of the last 24 games wasn’t much of a risk considering the talent on the team and the sizable division lead.
Not having him to start a couple games in the NLDS may have cost them a chance to advance deep into the playoffs, though. The Nats lost in five games to the Cardinals.
So now you can expect that each year Washington doesn’t win a World Series, especially with the talented group of players currently employed on the 25-man roster, fingers will be pointed to 2012 and the missed opportunity from shutting down Strasburg early.
In reality, they probably did the right thing. Or at least the safe thing in regards to Strasburg’s long-term health. He only pitched 24 innings in 2011 after returning from Tommy John surgery that limited him to 12 starts in 2010. He finished 2012 with 159.1 innings. That is a big jump.
Allowing him to continue would have easily pushed him over 200 innings, which the Nats felt was too much of a risk for their young ace. There have been debates on how they could have better managed his allotted innings, but many feel there is also plenty of risk in shutting down a pitcher and starting him back up later in the season.
On the other end of the spectrum, White Sox lefty Chris Sale made the transition from a rookie closer who pitched 71 innings in 2011 to 192 innings as a starter in 2012.
The Sox had concerns when Sale had a tender elbow in early May, moving him to the bullpen temporarily. But he talked his way back into the rotation and remained there for the remainder of a very successful season. The organization’s philosophy is to treat each case individually, and they felt that Sale was not at risk by pitching close to 200 innings.
Just as the Nats might have regrets if they don’t win a World Series anytime in the near future, however, the Sox will likely second-guess their decision if Sale’s elbow doesn’t hold up in 2013 after the huge workload increase from 2011 to last season.
With several high-caliber pitching prospects closing in on the majors, and a few great young pitchers already in the majors, let's take a look at six who could get shut down early in 2013.
Dylan Bundy, RHP, Baltimore Orioles
If there’s a player in this group who can approach Strasburg’s talent level, it’s Bundy. The 20-year-old pitched 105.1 dominant innings over four levels, including 1.2 in the majors, during his pro debut.
He’s currently on the Double-A disabled list with elbow stiffness, which actually works in the Orioles’ favor since he wasn’t going to start the season in the majors anyways. Easing him back onto the mound could allow them to utilize him deeper into the second half of the season in the big league rotation.
Unless they’re extremely cautious now and keep him out of game action until sometime in late May or early June, he’ll likely be shut down at some point before the end of the season. It appears that may be the case.
Dylan Bundy still on rehab in Fla. Now pain-free & on strengthening program. Still could be weeks away, but pain free. Club being cautious.— Steve Melewski (@masnSteve) April 9, 2013
Gerrit Cole, RHP, Pittsburgh Pirates
After throwing 132 innings in his pro debut last season, Cole should be able to climb up to at least 160 in 2013. The Bucs could limit his workload in Triple-A early in the season, as evidenced by his four-inning performance in his first start.
If the current rotation can hold up, there won’t be a sense of urgency to call up the 22-year-old Cole until at least the second half of the season. The longer they wait, in my opinion, the lighter the workload early on and the better chance he has to make it through September.
A contending Bucs team could be more aggressive with their “Ace of the Future,” however, so don’t rule him out for 175 innings if that were the case.
Jose Fernandez, RHP, Miami Marlins
One of the only reasons to go see the Marlins in 2013, the 20-year-old Fernandez allowed just one earned run and three hits with one walk and eight strikeouts over five innings in his MLB debut.
Pitching 134 innings last season in the low minors is likely a much less stressful workload than in the big leagues, where hitters are going to work the count and force him to make good pitches far more often.
Allowing him to pitch through August should put him right around 150 innings, a reasonable increase for the Marlins’ likely Opening Day starter for the next few years.
Kyle Gibson, RHP, Minnesota Twins
Like Strasburg, Gibson missed a good chunk of two seasons recovering from Tommy John surgery and won’t be counted on a full workload in 2013.
The 25-year-old had some impressive moments in the Arizona Fall League and spring training, showing that he’s nearly ready to help the big league team. In his first start of 2013, Gibson allowed just one run and four hits with no walks and four strikeouts in five innings for Triple-A Rochester.
A rotation that includes Vance Worley and Scott Diamond to go along with veterans Mike Pelfrey and Kevin Correia should be able to hold up for a couple months until Gibson is ready to join them, but it’s very likely that a Twins team that won’t be contending can play it safe and shut him down by early September.
Julio Teheran, RHP, Atlanta Braves
Shutting down your No. 5 starter in a September pennant race in no way compares to shutting down your ace, like the Nats did with Strasburg. But in what could be a tight race between Atlanta and Washington, the Braves will have to decide how long the 22-year-old Teheran can go before his season is over.
The top pitching prospect on the team for the past few years, Teheran tossed 137.1 innings last season and then pitched in the Dominican Winter League.
If Teheran begins to resemble the guy who dominated in the Winter League and spring training (26 IP, 3 ER, 7 H, 9 BB, 35 K), I doubt they’d shut him down. He might be their best option heading into the playoffs.
scouts impressed by adjustments made by julio teheran, instead of 97-98 w/command issue hes 91-94 w/deception. #braves— Jon Heyman (@JonHeymanCBS) March 16, 2013
If he’s not pitching all that great, as was the case in his 2013 debut (5 IP, 5 ER, 8 H), it will be much easier to shut him down and let him get rested up for 2014.
Zack Wheeler, RHP, New York Mets
The Mets shut down rookie phenom Matt Harvey with two weeks left in the 2012 season, putting him at 169.1 innings on the season. Wheeler will be the rookie phenom making his MLB debut later in 2013 and could be on a similar path as Harvey. He's also similar in that he's extremely talented.
Encouraging thought for #Mets on Opening Day from vet scout: "I am a Matt Harvey fan, but (Zack) Wheeler is going to be better."— Joel Sherman (@Joelsherman1) April 1, 2013
The 22-year-old, who pitched 149 innings between Triple-A and Double-A last season, should join Harvey in the rotation sometime in June and could easily pitch into September.
Unless they can surprise the world and be in a position to win a wild-card spot, though, it makes sense to shut Wheeler down when he gets close to 170 innings and look forward to a 2014 season with Harvey, Wheeler and Jon Niese at the top of the rotation.