The fans at Nationals Park cheered relentlessly as Stephen Strasburg made for the dugout. When he reemerged for a lengthy curtain call, and only then, they quelled to a simple roar.
It felt less like a meaningless game in June than like a World Series game. It felt less like a big-league debut than a fond farewell to a franchise legend. In fact, on that night some 15 months ago, it was hard not to imagine those scenarios. Strasburg was supposed to lead the Nats to a World Series, then another and another, and 15 years later, he would retire as the most dominant hurler in MLB history.
It did not go that way. By mid-August, Strasburg's biggest limitation—his durability—became apparent. On August 21, he left his start with forearm soreness. Within a week, he was officially scheduled for Tommy John surgery.
Scarcely 12 months have passed, but here is Strasburg, taking the mound Tuesday for one of what will be four starts before season's end. If the hype for his last debut was huge, the trepidation for this one is bigger. Everyone is excited to see the prodigy again. Everyone is nervous about how he will hold up this time around. Serious questions, and not unfounded ones, have been asked about whether Strasburg should be thrown back into the fire so soon.
The questions are valid, and the answer is yes. Strasburg should be out there. For those concerned about a pitcher coming back for a brief audition late in a season after the surgery, no better evidence is available than Strasburg's teammate Jordan Zimmermann.
After going under the knife in 2009, Zimmermann made seven starts last year in order to build arm strength for 2011. It worked to the tune of a 3.18 ERA, 124 strikeouts and just 31 walks in 161.1 innings this season from Zimmermann. He was shut down to spare his arm from undue workload on Aug. 28.
Strasburg's comeback represents a much larger risk, of course: The organization is on the hook for much more money—not to mention public derogation—if Strasburg burns out this time around. Still, this decision is a smart one because it sends a few very clear messages to Nationals fans.
Strasburg is fully healthy
For all the questions about whether the team is rushing their premier asset, think of all the doubt (panic might even be a fair word) that would circulate through the league—and especially the Nats' fanbase—if Strasburg were not to return. He's over a year past the operation, if just barely, and by bringing him back, the team affirms his health and offers him a public vote of confidence.
It's good for the fans, but it's also good for Strasburg, who (as many injured players do) might have struggled with a mental roadblock if the team had held him back. Their confidence ought to lend him the confidence to pitch at full strength and with clean mechanics.
The team intends to be good sooner, rather than later
Though demonstrating Strasburg's health and getting him throwing again would be important no matter what, a slow and steady approach (wherein Strasburg threw in fall instructional leagues and the Arizona Fall League before moving on to an offseason program) would have met that objective.
By choosing instead to have Strasburg appear this month in the big leagues, and face some good hitters, the team indicates that they plan on needing Strasburg to be fully ready, and not rusty, by Opening Day 2012.
Perhaps this portends a pursuit of Prince Fielder, whom the Nationals have supposedly been keen on for sometime. Certainly, it suggests that they will remain aggressive in trying to acquire a sure thing in center field. Ultimately, the choice to ensure Strasburg's full effectiveness from Day 1 next year confirms that the organization does not want to wait for 2013, or 2014, to contend. They well know they cannot topple Atlanta or Philadelphia next season, but in trying, they might better prepare themselves to do so down the road.
Zimmermann is more than a blueprint for Strasburg's recovery from surgery. Beginning next April, the two will be side-by-side in the regular rotation for the first time. Zimmermann's innings will be virtually uncapped next year, but had Strasburg not come back now, he probably would have had to stop around 150 frames next year.
With any luck, this return ensures that the phenom will be able to at least reach the 160 innings range, and possibly approach 175. If he's ever going to be a true ace, he will need to get to a number like that next season so that he can be in the 200s in 2013 and beyond.
They're hungry for cash
One basis for indictment of this decision in many circles has been that the team is doing it only for money. That is not true, but they are doing it partially for money, and there's nothing wrong with that. Making money allows a franchise to spend money.
If Nats fans want their team to pursue Fielder, or B.J. Upton, or even Mark Buehrle this winter, they need to embrace the fact that owners do not outspend their income. While Ted Lerner is one of the league's richest owners in terms of net worth, he's not making Yankee money off this team. He's not even making Cardinal money.
Until he does, expect him to keep spending more or less the same way he has, opening the check book so that general manager Mike Rizzo can draft aggressively, but not posting nine-figure payrolls.
Bringing Strasburg back like this gives the team a chance to see if he can still pack Nationals Park, and if fans will show up as though it were a World Series game (or a farewell to a legend) much like the way they did for Strasburg's starts last year. If they do, it could be impetus enough for the team to bump up the payroll going forward.