The time to worry about an underachieving team or to celebrate an overachieving team is August and September, not April and May. For teams like the Nationals that had great expectations coming into the season and have, up to now, been a disappointment with a 25-23 record due mostly to an offense that hasn’t produced, it’s not time to panic. Eventually they’re going to hit and be in playoff contention. But being in playoff contention isn’t the same as being in the playoffs or being guaranteed of being in the playoffs which is a luxury the Nationals had last season by mid-to-late August.
While the decision to shut Stephen Strasburg down in September and sit him out for the playoffs didn’t overtly cost the Nationals the NLDS against the Cardinals, its residue may stain the organization for years to come if they don’t come through and build on their progress and rapid ascent of 2012 by making an extended playoff run in the next few years. We’ll never know if the NLDS would have gone differently if Strasburg was pitching in the series, but the concept that the Nationals would “definitely” be back in that position on an annual basis with Strasburg and Bryce Harper leading the way ignores how circumstance and reality can sabotage even the most foolproof plans.
The Nationals’ struggles in 2013 should be an indicator that the run to the World Series with their young core isn’t fait accompli and the decision to shut Strasburg down could come back to haunt them within the next three years if they don’t make that playoff run and Strasburg leaves as a free agent after 2016. What they will have done is to save Strasburg’s bullets for the next team to use him rather than cower and give in to paranoia as a reason to “protect” him and not let him do what they paid him to do: pitch and help them win.
This is not about whether or not a few more innings would have resulted in cumulative damage that would injure Strasburg, nor is it about the medical studies and theories that predicated the shutdown. It’s about succeeding in achieving the ultimate object of playing in the first place: winning. Considering who Strasburg’s agent is and that the puppet strings in his usage dictates have been pulled by Scott Boras from the start with Strasburg a willing accomplice and the Nationals a witting (or unwitting) collaborator, do the Nationals think they’re going to get a discount when Strasburg’s free agency approaches?
Along with having two once-in-a-generation talents available as the number one pick in the draft and having the backwards good fortune of being so terrible that they were the first team picking for two straight years also comes with the caveat that, by today’s standards, they’re going to have to pay those players contracts of $200+ million for Harper and $180+ million for Strasburg. Boras represents Harper as well and the Nationals may not be able to keep both. Considering that it’s Boras, they’re less likely to take a long-term, team-friendly deal to sign. Boras doesn’t do that unless the player tells him to as Jered Weaver did and it was presumably over the heavy objections of the agent.
Let’s look at a worst case scenario independent of Strasburg getting hurt. What if the Nationals never return to the position they were in last season with this group and it gets to 2016 with Strasburg fully evolved and the best pitcher in baseball with Cy Young Awards, dominance and pending free agency? Then he leaves. Will the decision to shut him down in 2012 have been worth it? For Strasburg, Boras and the team that signs him (Yankees? Red Sox? Dodgers? Angels?) it will have been. For the Nationals, not at all.