Like many college students, I love unwinding during the weekend. Hours of preparation and memorization during the week finally give way to a relaxing, exciting weekend. As I closed my books for the week Thursday afternoon, I decided to spend my newfound, free time playing basketball.
Upon returning from the Field House (a fantastic place to play pickup basketball, by the way), I walked into an open room that was showing the ninth inning of game 4 between the Nationals and Cardinals. I watched Jayson Werth take an offering and drive it deep into the autumn night, propelling the Nationals to a 2-1 victory and taking the series to St. Louis for a decisive game 5. The reporter, who grabbed Werth after being mobbed by his teammates in front of a delirious crowd, asked the outfielder about their chances with their “ace” Gio Gonzalez taking the ball in game 5.
That isn’t right. Their “ace” has been sitting on the bench for the past month. Their “ace” would be Stephen Strasburg, who after a splendid, All-Star 2012 campaign can rid himself of the “phenom” label. Stephen Strasburg is the real deal. Yet the talented 24 year old will be nowhere near a mound until he prepares for the 2013 campaign, even though his team plays on. So why in the world is one of the baseball’s best pitchers watching his team try and win a World Series?
Strasburg would definitely be pitching in this postseason had he not be two years removed from Tommy John surgery in his pitching elbow. Headed into the season, Nationals General Manager Mike Rizzo was adamant about holding Strasburg to a specific number of innings this season. Even as the wins mounted in our nation’s capital and players and coaches proceeded to blast the organization’s decision, Washington’s General Manager stood pat. Finally, despite the disbelief among baseball fans across the nation, Strasburg was shut down midway through September, even though his team was leading the National League East and would be vying for a World Series Championship this October.
Never before have we seen one of the league’s best teams shut down their perfectly healthy number one starter before the playoffs. This is unprecedented for the Nationals as well, having not hosted a playoff game in Washington for 79 years. Yet, despite the country’s disbelief about Rizzo’s decision this month, fans will be thanking the stubborn GM years from now. Recent history has dictated that even the healthiest arms have been affected by a long playoff run.
Following the Boston Red Sox 2007 World Series season, ace Josh Beckett’s earned run average for the following season rose a full run. Additionally, back problems limited Beckett following his 20-7 campaign, who took four years to duplicate his championship form. While Tim Lincecum’s 2011 was splendid following the San Francisco Giants’ title, his 2012 regular season was so poor that the Giants’ ace is pitching out of the bullpen this October. Finally, Roy Halladay’s 2012 ERA was two runs higher, with seven fewer starts, than the 2011 campaign that ended in October for the Phillies.
These three proven veterans all struggled after trying, or even succeeding in winning championships. A young pitcher with a surgically repaired elbow would create further damage. Two, even three, Tommy John surgeries are not unheard of, so would the Nationals really want to risk causing further damage to their future?
Now, the argument against this train of thought is widely accepted in the baseball world. The number of legitimate chances to winning a championship is never guaranteed. The truth is that nobody can guarantee that the Nationals will produce this type of surge in the future. Yet, the position players in the lineup that manager Davey Johnson used in Game 4 against the Cardinals consisted of a 19 year old, 4 players in their twenties and 3 players at thirty years of age. Now if– and everyone knows it’s a huge “if”—these players can retain their health for 162 regular season games for a few seasons, the future is ever so bright in our nation’s capital.
The final argument in favor of the bold move by Rizzo is Strasburg’s inexperience. In his first two years in the majors, Stephen Strasburg threw 92 innings for the hometown team. This season he threw over 150. Three, four years removed from surgery and we probably never have this conversation. But, the Nationals are adamant about protecting their future, which they put into Strasburg’s surgically repaired arm. While it may go against every sense of integrity and respect for the coveted World Series Championship, having Gio Gonzalez as the ace of the 2012 Nationals makes all of the sense in the world.
The happiest man with this decision? Strasburg’s agent, Scott Boras. Protecting his client means that Boras is protected for the future. Regardless of where he was watching Thursday’s game, I bet he was sitting in front of his television, smiling.