Stephen Strasburg's Iffy Status Is Setback Nationals Are Well Armed to Weather

Seth Gruen@SethGruenFeatured ColumnistSeptember 9, 2016

Sep 7, 2016; Washington, DC, USA; Washington Nationals starting pitcher Stephen Strasburg (37) throws against the Atlanta Braves during the first inning at Nationals Park. Mandatory Credit: Brad Mills-USA TODAY Sports
Brad Mills-USA TODAY Sports

In a vacuum, news that Washington Nationals starting pitcher Stephen Strasburg has strained the flexor mass in his right elbow might seem like a gut punch to the team's hopes of winning the World Series.

Strasburg is, after all, a former No. 1 overall pick who has looked every bit an ace through much of the 2016 season.

Though Chelsea Janes of the Washington Post reports that Washington's righty may not be done for the year, it's only reasonable to look at the worst-case scenario, one in which Strasburg is unable to pitch again in 2016.

And you know something? It doesn't look all that bad.

Throughout the season, the Nationals have boasted one of MLB's best starting staffs. Washington's starters have an ERA of 3.57, third in the majors.

Sure, Strasburg has been part of that. But it's more a credit to the depth of a staff that includes players such as Max Scherzer (2.88 ERA), Tanner Roark (2.89 ERA) and the currently injured Joe Ross (3.49 ERA).

The Nationals hold an eight-game lead in the NL East, so there's little concern about whether this team will get to the playoffs. The worry is whether Strasburg's absence will be felt in October.

But what the players on this staff have proved—particularly Scherzer and Roark—is that they're capable of filling the void in the rotation. Scherzer leads baseball with a 0.92 WHIP and was considered Washington's ace even before the Strasburg injury. Roark's 1.18 WHIP is only marginally worse than Strasburg's 1.10.

NEW YORK, NY - SEPTEMBER 03: Pitcher Tanner Roark #57 of the Washington Nationals delivers a pitch against the New York Mets inning during the first inning of a game at Citi Field on September 3, 2016 in the Flushing neighborhood of the Queens borough of
Rich Schultz/Getty Images

While Strasburg's record of 15 wins ranks second on the team, that's partially because he's getting an NL-best 6.50 runs of support per start. Several players, including Nationals back-end starters Gio Gonzalez (4.40 ERA) and A.J. Cole (4.56 ERA), are capable of holding a team under six runs.

Most starters' seasons would look good with that kind of run support.

The Nationals have scored the fourth-most runs in the NL, so it's reasonable to assume whichever starter is on the mound will get support from the team's offense.

But a team only needs two dominant starters to win a playoff series. They have that in Scherzer and Roark.

In the five-game division series, a team's top two starters are always scheduled to pitch three of those games. That's all you need to win. So if Scherzer and Roark both pitch well, Washington shouldn't have any concerns about winning the NLDS.

In a seven-game championship series, a similar scenario would play out. Scherzer and Roark would be scheduled to pitch at least four games in a seven-game set—the exact number a team needs to advance.

Baseball has seen such a scenario play out. The pitching duo of Curt Schilling and Randy Johnson combined to start five games in the 2001 World Series, leading the Arizona Diamondbacks in a seven-game win over the New York Yankees.

They are Hall of Fame-caliber pitchers. But Schilling had a 2.98 ERA that season, worse than either Scherzer or Roark's total.

It puts more pressure on the Washington duo, for sure. But they're capable. And even if they falter, Nationals manager Dusty Baker holds an ace in his pocket: the team's bullpen.

Washington's relievers have been just as good as their starting counterparts. The unit's 3.28 ERA ranks second in MLB among bullpens.

The Nationals have three relievers—Matt Belisle (1.88), Sammy Solis (2.35) and Blake Treinen (2.44)—who have made at least 30 appearances for the club and have ERAs under 3.00.

Aug 2, 2016; Phoenix, AZ, USA; Washington Nationals relief pitcher Matt Belisle (18) celebrates with catcher Wilson Ramos (40) after beating the Arizona Diamondbacks 10-4 at Chase Field. Mandatory Credit: Matt Kartozian-USA TODAY Sports
Matt Kartozian-USA TODAY Sports

The group is an insurance policy that can easily be cashed in to pitch the last five innings of an important playoff game. Baseball saw the Kansas City Royals win the World Series last year with the game's best bullpen.

Any time a pitcher like Strasburg gets injured, it makes the team worse. But assessing the damage of his loss isn't found in comparing the Nats to where they were when he was playing at his peak.

Come October, the Nationals won't be looking in the mirror. They'll be staring down other NL teams.

The doomsday scenario can be answered by asking this simple question: Do the Nationals still have the pieces to win?

Before Strasburg was hurt, it seemed Washington had more than enough to win a World Series. Without Strasburg, the team might have just enough.

But it's all the same if the season ends with a trophy.

     

Seth Gruen is a national baseball columnist for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter: @SethGruen.

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