I’m kind of tired of reading and hearing about Stephen Strasburg and the decision by the Washington Nationals to shut him down for the season. That being the case, I’m not sure why I’m choosing now to actually write about him. But I am.
I suppose the reason is that I’ve been trying to put myself in the shoes of those directly and indirectly involved with the decision to put an end to the hard-throwing phenom’s season because he’s reached what seems to some to be an arbitrarily reached innings limit in his first full season following “Tommy John” surgery. I find the exercise of shoe-filling to be helpful when it comes to second-guessing the decisions of others. Sometimes, it’s pretty easy to know how I would feel and what I would do. Sometimes, not so much.
If I’m Stephen Strasburg, 24 year old pitcher, living my life-long dream of playing Major League Baseball, with a record breaking (for a draftee) $15.1 million 4-year contract in my pocket assuring me of being able to live comfortably for the rest of my life, and the competitive juices flowing through my veins that have driven me to reach this level, then I want to friggin pitch! Are you kidding me? My team is about to make the playoffs for the first time in the franchise’s history and the first time in my adopted home city since most likely before my grandfather was born and now I’m not going to be there for the end of the ride? You gotta be kidding me!
If I’m Scott Boras, Strasburg’s super-agent, I’ve got an investment to think about. Yes, I made a couple nickels off that $15+ million contract, but this is a pitcher who, if he hit the free agent market today, would easily bring in ten times that figure. Who knows how much he’ll be worth by the time he actally has enough service time in to hit the open market? It’s understandable that my client is focused on what he’s missing out on now, rather than on his future career and the earnings that come with it. It’s my job to focus on that for him. Of course I want to avoid risking career threatening injury that could come from throwing too many innings too soon and I’ll use every bit of influence and leverage I have to protect this investment.
If I’m Mike Rizzo, Nationals General Manager, I’ve got an investment to think about, too. But it’s not quite as cut and dried for me as it is for Mr. Boras. Somehow, I’ve got to balance protecting the $15+ million asset I’ve already put in to Strasburg (and, if you believe the comments made by Boras in this Washington Post article, I also need to balance my relationship with Boras), with the need to not totally alienate my team’s fan base. This is a fan base that is starved for success they’ve never… ever… felt. If I screw this up and the fans stay away from the ballpark next year, I won’t have to worry about this team’s future, because someone else will have my job. On top of that, I’m risking my relationship with a clubhouse full of players that are seeing me take away a key component of their team just three weeks before the postseason begins. (Then again, a big chunk of that clubhouse seems to be represented by Boras.)
If I’m a Washington Nationals fan, how do I feel? My chosen team is thissssssss close to the brass ring and Strasburg is a big reason “we” are in this position (make no mistake, as a fan of a team with the best record in baseball, I’m identifying myself with that team, so it’s all about what Rizzo is doing to “us”). Maybe if I were a Yankees fan (God forbid) and felt that sense of entitlement that comes from buying enough talent every year to almost assure my team of making the playoffs, I would have a longer term view of things. But in a town that hasn’t seen postseason baseball since 1933, this is a tough pill to swallow. On the other hand, it’s not like Strasburg is the only pitcher the Nats have. In fact, he’s arguably been among the least effective members of the rotation in recent weeks. But still…
The fact is, as Twins fans, we may get the opportunity to find out exactly how we would feel if we filled the shoes of Nationals fans. Of course, we’d have to get pretty lucky.
You see, the Twins have a young pitcher named Kyle Gibson that they think a lot of and he had TJ surgery right about one year after Strasburg did. He’s thrown a few innings late this year in the minors and he’ll pitch some more in a fall league. But before Opening Day, 2013, the Twins will need to come up with a plan for Gibson.
I’m not sure how the Twins will approach Gibson’s season, but I’m hoping they’re a bit smarter about it than Rizzo, Boras and, yes, even Strasburg himself, were about their situation this year.
See, I don’t really have a problem with limiting Strasburg to 160-ish innings, in accordance with his doctors’ recommendations not to overwork the recently repaired elbow. In fact, I find it refreshing. I would think that any fan, especially one who cringes whenever an old schooler clearly thinks a WHIP is something Indiana Jones carries and a K/9 is a police dog, would applaud the Nationals’ willingness to apply modern medical philosophy to Strasburg. I do, however, have a problem with them being stupid about how they applied that innings limit.
No matter who’s shoes I put myself in, I keep coming back to one thing.
If you’re dealing with a guy who’s going to pitch in the minors or if you absolutely know you’re MLB team is going to suck, sure, just send your guy out there for 160 innings and shut him down. But if you are talking about, thinking about, or even just giving lip-service about being competitive, why the hell do you even think about putting your guy in the rotation before May 1 (and probably a couple weeks later, to be safe)?
No matter which one of the roles in this little melodrama you step in to, wouldn’t it occur to you that it would be far more important to have your ace available for a stretch drive and the postseason, than to have him throwing in April’s potentially chilly evenings? Yes, games in April count as much as games in September, but games in October count a hell of a lot more than games in either of those months!
The Nats have provided a service to the rest of Major League Baseball, I suppose. They’ve made a mistake smarter GMs can learn from. In the future, any GM who doesn’t hold back his tender-elbowed pitcher at the beginning of the season and thus is forced to shut him down just when things get interesting will be known to have “Strasburged” his pitcher… and there’s really no excuse for another pitcher to ever be Strasburged again.
So watch closely this spring, folks. Follow along to see if Kyle Gibson starts the season in the Twins rotation or spends a month or so back in Fort Myers just keeping his arm warm until May rolls around. At the very least, he should spend a month or more in the bullpen, allowing him to stretch his innings through the full season without overworking that repaired elbow.
We can expect the Twins front office to tell fans they believe the Twins will be competitive in 2013. But if Kyle Gibson is in the rotation to open the season, we’ll know the truth… that the front office does not expect their team to contend in 2013, so they’re willing to Strasburg Gibson.
Either that or they’re just being as stupid as the Nationals.