Strasburg Ambiguity Mars The Nationals’ Magical Season

How can anyone involved with the Nationals justify looking into Stephen Strasburg’s face and telling him that while the team is on its way to the playoffs and is a legitimate World Series contender that because of a random number of innings and the edicts of one person’s dictatorial, unchecked authority, he can’t be a part of it?

The number (supposedly 160 innings or thereabouts), so random and capricious with no ironclad guarantee that it’s going to help him stay healthy over the long-term, predicates that Strasburg should resist and use his power over the situation to escape it.

There are so many compelling stories with the Nationals that the looming shutdown of Strasburg is marring all they’ve accomplished and it’s coming down to the self-proclaimed final word, GM Mike Rizzo. Given the number of GMs who’ve been celebrated in recent years and either found themselves fired (Omar Minaya); on the hotseat (Jack Zduriencik, Dan O’Dowd); or seen their reputations shattered (Billy Beane), Rizzo might not even be there in 2015. Manager Davey Johnson and pitching coach Steve McCatty are going along to get along, but Johnson’s style in his prior stops and the atmosphere in which he spent his formative baseball years—the Earl Weaver Orioles of Jim Palmer throwing 300+ innings—do you really think Johnson, at age 69, wants to hold back on the once-in-a-lifetime arm of Strasburg when he might be writing his ticket to the Hall of Fame with another World Series win? A win that could hinge on Strasburg being allowed to pitch? Do you believe that McCatty, who saw his own career demolished by Billy Martin’s and Art Fowler’s abuse, doesn’t understand the limits of a pitcher and when he needs to have the brakes put on? It’s inexplicable to hire qualified people to do their jobs and not let them do them; to have experienced baseball people whose in-the-trenches understanding of the game are dismissed in the interests of self-protection and “I’m not gonna be the one that’s blamed if he gets hurt.”

That’s what Rizzo is doing. It’s got nothing to do with studies or protecting the player; Rizzo is protecting himself. No one else.

The implementation of pitcher workloads has become a circular defense and is a logical fallacy. Because Jordan Zimmerman underwent the same Tommy John surgery as Strasburg and was limited to 160 innings last season, it’s presented as validation for Strasburg’s final number of 160 or so innings. But they’re two different pitchers with two different levels of talent and two different thresholds along with dozens of other variables that aren’t being publicly accounted for in the interests of a short and sweet, salable list of “reasons” to place Strasburg on the sidelines as the kid who has to take his piano lessons while the other kids in the neighborhood out enjoying the sun and playing ball.

No one’s saying to abuse him as the Cubs, chasing a dream and trying to slay ghosts, did to Kerry Wood in 1998. But to just say STOP!!! and be done with it is a different form of abuse.

Strasburg doesn’t want to have his season ended prematurely, but if the Nats get to the playoffs or World Series, he’s not going to be a participant; or if he is, it will be after a month of barely pitching. It’s ludicrous and could also hinder his career rather than save it. Strasburg has to have some recourse. Saying all the right things and being a willing accomplice are separate. If I were Strasburg and his representatives, I’d push back. Agent Scott Boras, no stranger to hardball as a former player and negotiator, knows the terrain of arm-twisting organizations in the interests of his clients. Strasburg and Boras have a large share of the say-so in this situation. The point of power is to use it. If it’s put out publicly that Strasburg won’t sign any long-term deal with the Nationals if they continue to put their constraints on his career, what’s going to happen? Strasburg could refuse to report to the club next season and force his way out of Washington; he could be a test case because the Nats are not operating in his best interests. The blowback of Strasburg tearing at his chains legally and in a public relations blitz would be fierce and Rizzo wouldn’t have a choice but to back down.

The number of great players in sports who have been part of teams that made it to the pinnacle of team achievement or came thisclose but didn’t close the deal are legion. Ernie Banks, Don Mattingly and the new Hall of Famer Ron Santo are three of dozens of examples who would’ve traded years of their careers for a title shot.

Exacerbating this travesty is that the Nationals—or simply Rizzo and Rizzo alone—didn’t take steps such as the 6-man rotation to specifically prevent the need to end Strasburg’s season in September.

It’s easy to suggest that what the Nats have built will be sustainable and they’ll have multiple opportunities to make it back again and again; that with Bryce Harper, Ryan Zimmerman and the young pitching staff, they’ll be contenders for years to come. Facts and history say otherwise. It’s not true that they’re absolutely going to have chance after chance. Ask Dan Marino if he’s stunned by never having made it back to the Super Bowl after his sophomore season in which he demolished the NFL record books and carried the Dolphins to the NFL’s ultimate game. Then ask him if he’d have sat by quietly if the coaches and front office decided that he’s thrown too many passes after 13 games and they were sitting him down to lengthen his career. You can say it’s not the same thing, but it actually is the same thing. Strasburg is a baseball player; he’s a pitcher. Sometimes, regardless of how they’re handled and babied, they get injured as happened with Strasburg two years ago. Nothing is to be gained by sitting him down with numbers that have no basis in reality. Yet that’s what the Nats are doing and it’s not about protecting anyone other than the GM of the team, which makes it exponentially worse.

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  1. #1 by bdrube on July 24, 2012 - 2:54 pm

    I’m sorry, but this analysis is just plain stupid. There is ZERO chance that Strasburg is going to hold out over the innings limits issue, which the team is doing to protect HIS interests as well as their own, and Boras has every financial incentive in the world to respect the Nats’ decision given that Stras will probably be worth $200 million when he hits free agency.

    I’ve seen four of Stras’s starts in person this year and have witnessed how his control lags at times coming off the surgery, resulting in high pitch counts. It very much reminds me of how Jordan Zimmermann looked last year. A six man rotation is also a dumb idea, given that it would have taken starts away from Gio Gonzalez and Jordan Zimmermann just to give them to John Lannan and Chein-Ming Wang.

    You can dis Mike Rizzo all you want. Fact is, the dude has resurrected a moribund franchise and put it in a position to be a contending team for a decade. If the Nats just MAKE the playoffs this year, something no DC team has done since 1933, they will build another monument on The Mall and name it after him. Stras will have plenty of chances to get his ring(s).

    • #2 by admin on July 24, 2012 - 11:54 pm

      If you’re going to credit Rizzo for “resurrecting” the franchise, you’re also ignoring the fact that the team was so horrific—under Rizzo as GM—that they had the first pick in the draft for two consecutive seasons and were lucky enough that there happened to be franchise players and consensus, no-contest first overall picks sitting there for them to take.
      The dumb idea isn’t the 6-man rotation, but the decision to baby Strasburg and limit him to a random number of innings that he’s pulling out of the air based on absolutely nothing. The 6-man rotation is a legitimate way to limit his number of innings without shutting him down when they’re going to need him most—in the playoffs when Rizzo is supposed to earn a monument(?).
      Do you really believe that Strasburg and Boras are onboard with this and that they have no recourse? Have you heard of Scott Boras? Do you know what it is he does? If Strasburg and Boras decided to do it, they could absolutely hold the organization hostage and end this farce. The idea that Boras wouldn’t use anything at his disposal to try and extract every single penny and desire of his clients is ignorant of what he’s done his entire career as a subversive force to any and all rules implemented by MLB to hinder a player’s earning power from the beginning of his career to the end. How you would know about “zero” chance of anything regarding the ability of Strasburg and Boras to end this charade is unclear.
      I couldn’t care less what you’ve watched in person. The fact is that there’s no evidence that a random number like 140, 160, 180 or whatever is a guarantee of player health. The numbers suggesting that they’re accurate are twisted to suit the argument. Anyone can find a number to prove their point. It doesn’t make it so. They babied Strasburg after he was drafted. This was after he was babied in college and what happened? He blew out his elbow.
      I’ll ignore the fact that you’re equating a legitimate question of why Rizzo’s being so self-serving and arrogant with “dissing” him, but a monument on the wall named after Rizzo? For what? Will the monument mention the ridiculous Jayson Werth contract? The trade of Joel Hanrahan? The signings of Scott Olsen and Jason Marquis?
      I venture to say that anyone could’ve and would’ve picked Harper and Strasburg. Selecting the clear number one amateur player in the draft is not a badge of honor. Nor is puffing out one’s chest as Rizzo is doing and calling himself the final authority on a decision that’s plain absurd.

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