PAWTUCKET — If the Washington Nationals’ decision to pose an innings limit on ace pitcher Stephen Strasburg was debated and haggled over in a court of law, it’s quite possible the rendering would be a hung jury.
Such a case involving a high-profile player and a playoff-starved franchise that has October baseball in its sights poses a provoking conundrum that can be argued and debated from both sides of the equation.
On one hand, Washington can be viewed as looking to protect the investment they have in Strasburg, a star at age 24 who underwent Tommy John surgery nearly two years ago.
In possibly capping Strasburg between 160 and 180 innings – presently he stands at 139 1/3 frames – the Nationals are putting out there the unlikely occurrence of him pitching wire-to-wire. Again, such a course of action suggests the long-range planning Washington is taking, believing that preservation of the backbone of the pitching staff for future seasons outweighs any present-day, team-oriented benefits – no matter how enticing they may be.
Then there’s looking through the prism of “going for the brass ring now because tomorrow is far from guaranteed.” It goes without saying that by removing Strasburg, Washington’s World Series hopes become diluted to the point that the landscape of the National League playoff field would dramatically change.
The Nationals possessed the game’s best record heading into Sunday, yet who’s to say that with Strasburg out of the picture that contending N.L. teams such as Atlanta, Cincinnati, Pittsburgh, San Francisco and Los Angeles aren’t salivating at the prospect of capitalizing on the opening provided by Washington?
The Nationals have not qualified for the postseason since relocating to Washington in 2005. Dating back to their tenure as the Montreal Expos, they reached the playoffs just once in 36 years, which occurred during strike-shortened 1981 season. If you take into account when the Washington Senators were around, the last time D.C. saw a World Series winner was 1924 with the last title appearance coming in 1933.
For an Expos/Nationals franchise that over the years has not had much reason to cheer, it seems almost foolish not to push all of the cards toward the center of the table. With a sterling record that fully justifies an “all in” approach,” this season may prove to be Washington’s best chance to bring a baseball championship back to the Nation’s Capital.
If there’s one merit to the Strasburg/Nationals dilemma, it’s that there appears to be no right or wrong answer. Last week in the PawSox clubhouse, two pitchers whose careers juxtapose that of Strasburg’s were asked to share their thoughts and weigh in on this hot-button topic.
Now-former Pawtucket reliever Mark Prior took the stance that the organization has the ultimate say in how a player is deployed. Meanwhile, 25-year-old Alex Wilson expressed that with Washington in the current position it’s in, why on earth would you even think about shutting down your best pitcher at such a critical juncture?
Before there was Stephen Strasburg, there was Mark Prior, a young and promising 20-something fireballer who was a high draft pick and quickly tore through the minor leagues before reaching the majors. In 2003, Prior was 23 and in his first full season with the Chicago Cubs after making 19 starts the previous year. Counting his playoff workload, he threw 234 2/3 innings in 2003.
If there was any talk of the Cubs shutting down Prior for the sake of not letting his workload spiral out of control, he was not privy to such discussions. Like the Nationals, the ’03 Cubs were going full throttle in trying to reach the playoffs, knowing that if they were going to fulfill that prophecy, they were going to need Prior to take his turn once every five days.
“I don’t know if there were discussions behind the scenes, but I was never aware of such,” said Prior about whether there was any mention by the Cubs to him in easing up on the gas to the point that he would be prematurely done for the balance of the aforementioned 2003 season. “I think it’s an organization’s call and is something that whoever overall is in charge, if that’s the decision they want to make, then that’s the way it is.
“It’s tough because no matter how many people understand the thought process behind it and dissect it right from wrong, it’s nobody’s decision but (by those who are calling the shots),” Prior delved further.
It would be interesting to find out whether the Nationals used Prior as a textbook example of what can happen to a pitcher when a big workload is heaped on his back so early in his career. To date Prior has not been able to match the acclaim and success he reached in 2003 with various arm problems robbing him of his prime while simultaneously denying him a big-league job, which hasn’t been the case since 2006.
“I’m a big believer that no one has the right answer,” said Prior. “Everyone thinks they do, but you’ve just got to let it happen.”
Alex Wilson missed the entire 2008 college season after undergoing Tommy John surgery the year prior. He returned to the mound for Texas A&M in 2009, albeit with explicit instructions in how he would be used.
“They (the coaches for the Aggies) acknowledged that I wasn’t supposed to throw 100 innings that year and I ended up throwing 90,” Wilson recalled. “Once I was drafted and signed [Wilson was taken in the second round in the ’09 draft by Boston], Red Sox officials were on the same plan, knowing it was my first full season back.”
In his first pro foray, Wilson started games for Single-A Lowell but would get removed after a couple of innings. All told he tossed 36 innings in 13 starts for the ’09 Spinners, such a cautious approach reminiscent of the 44 1/3 innings spanning 11 starts Strasburg totaled between the minors and majors in 2011.
To Wilson, what makes the Nationals’ restricting of Strasburg sort of curious is that Strasburg got some innings under his belt in 2011 before having a full off-season to get ready for 2012.
“To me, you can extend him a little bit just because the recovery period has been prolonged,” Wilson acknowledged. “If I’m the Nationals and in the midst of a pennant race …”
Undoubtedly there are plenty of Washington fans willing to finish Wilson’s train of thought with “We need Stephen Strasburg.” On the other side of the ledger, Mark Prior notes there are elements of the game that are decreed by governing types – ones who don’t influence games on a daily basis and adhere to long-range planning.
With the prosecution and defense now resting, there’s just one thing left to say – court is adjourned.