Stephen Strasburg or Jordan Zimmermann: Who should start Nationals opening day?

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The question of who will start opening day is one of the many topics that gets batted around during spring training, only to be largely forgotten by mid-April. But by God, it’s spring training right now, so let’s bat it around.

The safe assumption is that Stephen Strasburg, for the third consecutive year, will be handed the ball on opening day. But Manager Matt Williams insists no final decision has been made. He said Jordan Zimmermann will receive consideration for the honor, and he said it as though he found it obvious.

“Of course he will,” Williams said yesterday. “He won a whole bunch of games last year. He’s been really good.”

Across baseball, teams have been tabbing aces to start their opener. Williams will wait another week, until after the off day March 18, to make his official. Even if the choice seemed clear heading into spring, Williams has framed this as a legitimate question: Should Strasburg or Zimmermann start opening day for the Nationals?

The case for Strasburg: He’s the Nationals’ best pitcher, period, and starting him opening day will allow the Nationals to maximize the number of starts he makes. Even if last season he experienced a preponderance of hiccups, both self-made and hard-luck, no one on the staff – and perhaps no one in baseball – can match his stuff. That’s especially true now that he has full extension of his elbow following offseason surgery to remove bone chips. Heck, despite some rough patches, Strasburg’s 3.00 ERA led the Nationals’ rotation. Strasburg has also shown he can handle whatever extra responsibility comes with an opening day start. The past two years, he has yielded one run in 14 innings on opening day.

The case for Zimmermann: The opening day start is not just reserved for a team’s best pitcher. It is an honor bestowed, a nod to the starter who had the team’s best season the year before. For the Nationals, that was Zimmermann. He made the all-star team, won 19 games and pitched 213 innings. Strasburg may be brilliant, but Zimmermann has been sturdy, reliable and frequently dominant. Strasburg likely won’t be missing out on any starts if he takes the ball second, anyway. Zimmermann deserves his first chance at an opening day starter.

Like all of his decisions, Williams will be making the call for the first time.

“I think it’s an honor for the guy who is the opening day starter,” Williams said earlier this spring. “At the same time, it doesn’t demean anybody else. I think it’s an honor for the guy who gets the ball on opening day. We all certainly want to get off to a great start, and everybody wants to win that first game because it feels good and it’s good momentum and all those things. For me, I think it’s important for our guys to feel good and get excited about themselves and all that stuff. They’re all going to pitch, though. They’re all going to get the ball at some point that week. And every game means the same as far as importance goes.

“I think everybody understands. Everybody understands that every game is important. I caution myself in doing something like that because at this point, we need to see their progression through spring. Everybody’s well aware of the guys we have on this club and their accomplishments and how well they’ve done. But I still want them to feel good about it. So if we have to push a guy a day, it doesn’t mean anything. It just means if we have to give them an extra day for some reason, everybody’s going to go through a dead-arm period, everybody’s going to have heavy legs, all those things. It happens every spring. So I caution myself in saying anything that would point in any direction at this point, because you just don’t know.”

As for Zimmermann, he has already moved on to where the rest of us end up.

“I don’t really care when I pitch, to be honest with you,” he said.

FROM THE POST

Steven Souza Jr. emerged from the brink to become a legitimate prospect, James Wagner writes.

FROM YESTERDAY’S JOURNAL

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MATT WILLIAMS’S QUOTE OF THE DAY

“Without winners there wouldn’t even be a civilization.”

DAYS UNTIL OPENING DAY

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Adam Kilgore covers national sports for the Washington Post. Previously he served as the Post's Washington Nationals beat writer from 2010 to 2014.
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