Originally written on The Sports Headquarters  |  Last updated 11/9/14

As more and more evidence becomes available to us in a variety of forums, it has become more and more apparent that coaches appear to be doing the right thing when it comes to inning limitations. Such is the case with the Nationals’ Stephen Strasburg who in only his third season out of San Diego St. has emerged into a top of the rotation arm as he was projected to be when the Nats took him 1st overall in the 2009 MLB draft.

In his first career major league start, Strasburg showed why Sports Illustrated had dubbed it “the most hyped pitching debut the game has ever seen.” He pitched seven innings, recorded 14 strikeouts, yielded only 2 runs and struck out the last seven batters he faced in route to the win. He finished the year 5-3 with a 2.91 ERA and since then has experienced the devastating Tommy John Surgery before following it up with a wonderful start to the 2012 season. As we approach the all-star break he sits at 9-3 with a 2.81 ERA for the year and will almost certainly be selected to the NL all-star game.

So while everything seems great on the surface, the reality is the Nationals have a dilemma staring them in the face that they’ll be forced to choose between. Do the Nationals stick to the pre-season plan of shutting Strasburg down once he hits a certain innings limitation or do they toss the plan and say we have to make our run now? Ultimately that’s the decisions that make or break careers of managers and franchise general managers.

There’s a history of young pitchers who have had trouble perhaps as a result of the amount of work they put in at a young age. Kerry Wood and Mark Prior on the Cubs are two examples regularly up. Mark Prior was a young phenom who finished 3rd in the NL Cy Young voting in 2003 after going 18-6 and throwing 211 innings. His numbers were never the same after that season and he slowly deteriorated until his career basically washed up 2006. While some argue he just had bad luck with injuries and suffered injuries prior to 2003 as well, those injuries were related to running the bases or on-field collisions. The reoccurring arm problems didn’t start until after that 2003 season.

Kerry Wood had three seasons in a row where he threw just about 175  innings or more and only once after that did he top 100 innings pitched as it was decided he would be better off transitioning to the bullpen. His career fluctuated as a closer as he had a couple productive seasons, but he himself ran into arm problems that many believe began with the workload he took on as a young pitcher in Chicago. What was once a young sensation who tied Roger Clemens’ single-game strikeout record with 20 became a pitcher who was limited to bullpen work because his arm could no longer support the grind of a starter.

Even someone such as Tim Lincecum in the game today as shown a drastic falloff this season after 4 very strong seasons including two Cy Youngs. Known for being one of the hardest workers in the game, Lincecum went over 200 innings pitched each of the past four seasons and started at least 32 games in each of them as well. While he is still only 28 years old and supposed to be in his prime still, some are questioning whether the workload after the past few seasons has caught up to him.

Not every pitcher is effected by this of course. There’s some pitchers who can seemingly throw with rubber arms for their entire careers without being phased by it. However, given the nature of Strasburg’s past Tommy John surgery and the fact the Nationals have a lot of money invested in him, there is more caution when it comes to pitching him past the predetermined innings figure which one source expects to be around 165 innings. At 93 innings pitched on the season already that could mean sometime in September he approaches that level and forces the Nationals hand.

So what’s the issue? What is there even to worry about with Strasburg? He hits the 165 inning limit and they call it a year for him….

Problem is Washington isn’t making that easy by holding down first place in the NL East. The season is approximately at the mid-way point and there’s a lot of baseball left to be played. However if the Nationals are still in contention in mid-September and have a chance to go to the postseason, what do the Nationals do? Do they shut down the ace of their staff and stick to the plan. Do they scrap it and play the year out, hoping to compete for a World Series title?

That’s the dilemma they face and one that could define their future. Stephen Strasburg is talented enough to be among the best pitchers in baseball for the next decade if he doesn’t injure himself again. With Bryce Harper having arrived this year and emerging into an impact player right away himself, the Nats have two young stars to build around and bring fans to the ballpark. Is that worth a shot at a World Series if they’re in contention? That’s tough to say.

The Nationals with Gio Gonzalez, Edwin Jackson and Jordan Zimmerman could certainly field a pitching staff in the postseason if they elected to shut Strasburg down. The question would be how does the team take it if they do? Ryan Zimmerman is a 28 year old 3rd basemen who has had shoulder issues this year. He’s been with the Nats since 2005 and has never had the chance to play in a postseason with them. What would his reaction be to the team saying they’re not going all out for a title this year? Jason Werth will return from his wrist injury at some point in late July and early August and while some may suggest he has no place to have a say, as a premier free agent last year who signed for a ton of money, what message would it send to pending free agents who may come here if the Nats don’t go for it?

It’s a really dicey call. Executives would likely lean towards shutting him down because of the investment in that right arm and because this team could have the talent to contend for a number of years. However, it’s like I say whenever the topic of the Celtics Big 3 vs Kevin Durant comes up, you never know what strange things can happen in the future.

If the Nats are playing for a playoff spot in mid-late September I think they have to go for it. If they’re going to make it in and win the East, I think they could give him an extended rest and not pitch him the last couple weeks. Still, if the Nats are in playoff contention or going to the playoffs, I think they have to botch the plan and go for it. They may never get a chance to contend again.

It’s not the popular opinion probably (and a good chance one they won’t roll with), but with the potential to compete for a World Series on the table, I think you need all arms on deck.

Including Stephen Strasburg.


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