TORONTO, CANADA - Stephen Strasburg of the Washington Nationals delivers a pitch during interleague MLB game action against the Toronto Blue Jays. (Photo by Brad White/Getty Images)
Back in 2010, Rob Dibble created a controversy when he said this about Stephen Strasburg:
Hrrr rugga grrrrfffff
/gnaws on microphone
Hrrrerrrk. Herrrrrrk. Hurp hurp hurp.
/more gnawing sounds
Three days later, linguists translated this into a common tongue:
Ok, you throw a pitch, it bothers your arm, and you immediately call out the manager and the trainer? Suck it up, kid.
Strasburg needed Tommy John surgery and missed a year. The quote, which was stupid already, looked even more stupid. Dibble was advocating for less caution, and several days later, it became clear that more caution was needed.
And the Nationals have been exhibiting more caution, and then a little more on top of that. Strasburg was removed from his start on Wednesday with a "little cut", for example. Old Hoss Radbourn would have tweeted about it, but he was too busy vomiting with rage.
If you think the care with which the Nats are treating Strasburg is an old and tired story, you can't possibly imagine what's in store for you. This is just beginning. The Nationals plan to limit him to around 170 innings this year, and with each Nationals win, the plan seems crazier and crazier. Strasburg is averaging 5.9 innings per start; at that current pace, he'll get to the 170-inning mark with 16 more starts. If Strasburg pitches every fifth game, he's on pace to reach his limit on September 23.
The Nationals might get creative with the calendar, or they might start pulling Strasburg after five innings, or ... heck, I don't know. They have some sort of plan that isn't "treat him like a normal pitcher until he reaches 170 innings and then chloroform him and stuff him into a steamer trunk." They've been preparing for this.
But no matter how you rejigger the starts and innings from now until the end of the season, it's going to be impossible for the Nationals to both keep their word and allow Strasburg to throw in the playoffs. That doesn't seem like the biggest deal right now because everyone in the Nationals rotation is pitching somewhere between Tom Glavine and Pedro Martinez. Strasburg is just one pitcher in a ridiculously deep rotation.
Here's a prediction, though: Between now and September, something will happen to the rotation. And I'm not just talking about injuries. Just something that makes the Nationals doubt their rotation is filled with equally talented pitchers. Heck, it might not be in a bad way -- this something includes Strasburg throwing 60 consecutive scoreless innings and establishing himself as the alpha-ace. Which means if/when the Nats shut him down, they'll do so knowing that they're hurting their playoff chances.
This makes the impending decision fascinating. You've probably engaged in debates over hypothetical scenarios in your time as a baseball fan. Is it better to win a World Series like the Marlins and suffer through a fire sale, or is it better to have a ten-year stretch of success and the occasional division title without a championship? If the Red Sox had won the World Series in 1990, would it have been worth giving up Jeff Bagwell?
You get to see these how-far-are-you-willing-to-go decisions all of the time when it comes to deadline deals, but the Strasburg innings limit is the first time I can remember a team considering something so drastic with one of their best players. It's a team actively coming down on the side of a short-term/long-term debate that was more of a thought experiment before this season.
The risk is a playoff rotation without Strasburg. The reward is a rotation with Strasburg in it, uninterrupted, for several seasons. The problem is that the reward isn't guaranteed. The Nats are using their best judgment and an organizational consensus, but they aren't messing around with beakers and test tubes. They have to juggle 50 different concerns and 500 different scenarios. I'm glad I'm not Mike Rizzo.
But I am glad I get to watch. I think I'll write a scathing column against each of the possible decisions, just to be an ass. Whatever the Nationals do, it'll be controversial. And it will be fascinating.