Washington Nationals General Manager Mike Rizzo made the decision long ago to limit Stephen Strasburg to between 160 and 180 innings this season, to protect his right arm as he pitches in his first full season after ligament-replacement surgery. Rizzo is thinking about the long-term interest of the franchise and trying to protect the precious future of a 24-year-old with unbounded potential.
Inside the Nationals’ clubhouse, the decision is understood. It is also unpopular. Players live in the moment. They are aware that no matter how promising both Strasburg’s and the Nationals’ futures appear, they may never have another moment like this one. The notion of playoff baseball in Washington is becoming real. The Nationals have the best record in baseball and a legitimate chance to challenge for a World Series. And their front office, righteous in its belief, will ask them to play without their best pitcher.
“I get their side,” first baseman Adam LaRoche said. “But our side is, the playoffs aren’t guaranteed. You don’t want to shut your best guy down — or one of your best guys, because we’ve got a bunch of them — if you’re never going to go back there. If I knew for the next two or three years we’re going to go back, then it’s probably an easy decision.
“From my side of it, I’m sure [Ryan Zimmerman], Jayson [Werth], [Mark DeRosa], guys who have been around a while, it’s tough to go out there and bust it every night, then turn around and have one of your best guys shut down. Are we going to pout about it? No. We’re not going to go yell at Rizzo or [Manager Davey Johnson]. No, it is what it is. It’ll be frustrating, but apparently we’re going to have to deal with it, because I think they’ve made up their minds.”
Even when Strasburg started five games last September, the Nationals were open about their plans for him. Rizzo has also been steadfast that circumstances — such as a playoff chase — will not alter them. Rizzo has changed his mind before based on new information. When the Nationals suffered myriad injuries in April, he called up Bryce Harper far before he expected. But Rizzo does not view Strasburg’s innings limit through a competitive prism.
“This is about health of a pitcher coming off Tommy John surgery,” Rizzo said back in May. “It’s not a development issue like Harper. Timetables on development can change, just because players all develop at different rates in all different scenarios. To me, this is a longevity question. It’s a health question. It’s caring about the player and the person more so than the won-loss record.”
With the decision final, Nationals players find resolve in the strength of their rotation behind Strasburg. Gio Gonzalez and Jordan Zimmermann are both aces. Edwin Jackson has top-shelf stuff and postseason experience. Ross Detwiler has shown flashes of being a top-of-the-rotation starter. John Lannan has delivered two stellar starts when called up from Class AAA Syracuse for double headers.
This is how the Nationals’ rotation is: If Strasburg’s 43 earned runs allowed over 1331 / 3 innings were removed, the Nationals’ rotation would have a 3.30 ERA, still the best in the majors.
“We got four damn good pitchers besides him, too,” reliever Sean Burnett said. “It’s going to stink that he’s not with us, but at the same time we’ve got guys who can step up.”
The Nationals do not ignore the obvious, though: Their chances to win the World Series are diminished without Strasburg, who is 13-5 with a 2.90 ERA.
“Obviously, I don’t like it,” said DeRosa, a key piece of the clubhouse culture. “He’s one of the best pitchers in the game. The way we’re going, and to not have him, is going to be difficult. That being said, we kind of knew it in spring training. I thought Davey answered it great — people a lot smarter than us are making this decision. We really don’t have any control over it. But yeah, it’s gonna hurt. It’s gonna hurt, there’s no doubt. If I had my vote, I’d vote he pitches. But I don’t get that vote.”
DeRosa spoke with a smile and not a scowl, resigned but not bitter. The Nationals have been steeled to play without Strasburg by their experience this season. They suffered a season-ending injury to catcher Wilson Ramos and other significant injuries to Werth, all-star shortstop Ian Desmond, Michel Morse and Drew Storen. Strasburg’s absence will be one more obstacle.
“It doesn’t really matter what I think,” Werth said. “It’s going to happen whether we like it or not. That’s part of the protocol. We’re just going to have to do what we’ve been doing all year, and that’s overcome. Guys have been out of the lineup, been injured, in and out. Other guys have picked up.
“Whatever, you know? We’ll be fine. I like our pitching, with or without Stras. Obviously, I like it better with. But we’ll be all right. I think we’ll be great. Either way, you just got to hit.”
Of course, the Nationals are not under the impression that they have won because they missed crucial players. They won despite the losses, and they will hope to do the same without Strasburg.
“Look at Cincinnati,” DeRosa said. “They lost Joey Votto and went on one of their best streaks. It doesn’t mean they didn’t miss Joey Votto. It just kind of fell into place that way. Maybe he gets shut down and we go on another winning streak. Who knows? But if you ask any team to pull their best pitcher down the stretch, it’s going to have a huge detriment.”
Some Nationals worry about how the limit will affect Strasburg, an ultra-competitive personality. At the all-star break, Strasburg said the Nationals would have to “rip the ball out of my hands” if they want to shut him down. The mentality does not surprise his teammates.
“They’re going to have to clean his locker out,” Storen said. “They’re going to have to take all his gloves away. That’s the kind of guy of he is.”
The Nationals are restricting Strasburg with his future in mind, to ensure his best chance at a full career and many postseasons to come. But a shot at the World Series, veterans know, can be sometimes a once-in-a-career proposition.
“I just understand how hard it is to get there,” LaRoche said. “We’ve see good teams every year, teams who spend a ton of money, don’t get in. So it’s tough. Hopefully it doesn’t matter. Hopefully they shut him down and Stras has a chance to win two or three World Series. I would hate for this to be his chance, and then 12 years from now him not ever go back in the postseason again.”
Rizzo understands Strasburg will be angry upon being told he can no longer pitch. But he has experience. “Zimmermann was upset, too,” Rizzo said.
Last year, the Nationals shut down Zimmermann after 1612 / 3 innings as he pitched his first full season with a reconstructed elbow. This season, Zimmermann is a Cy Young candidate with a 2.35 ERA, third in the National League.
“Obviously, it worked out,” Zimmermann earlier this season. “It was best for me. At the time, I wanted to keep pitching, because I felt good. I wanted to keep going. After coming back this year and feeling the way I feel, I look at it as it was the right choice to make.”
Zimmermann also acknowledged the different stakes between now and then. The 2011 Nationals were 181 / 2 games out of first place with 30 games remaining, headed for a .500 finish. The 2012 Nationals likely are headed to the postseason.
“I’m definitely happy,” Zimmermann said. “We were out of it, so it was probably the best thing to get shut down. But if we were in the hunt, I’m sure I would have said a little something.”
As another pitcher who recently underwent surgery, Storen sided fully with Rizzo. Storen had bone chips removed from his elbow this April, a far cry from ligament-replacement surgery. But his experience made him realize the importance of adhering strictly to prescribed rehab.
“For me, I’d say you got to do it,” Storen said. “There’s no doubt in my mind. People don’t understand how hard it is on your body. Say we extended Stras an extra 30 innings or something. It might not be something that hurts him this year. He might get through the whole season.
“But it might be next year. We might be getting into the playoffs at the end of the year, then all of a sudden he starts getting fatigued. All of a sudden his shoulder starts wearing down. That’s when you get hurt. This stuff is so cumulative. It’s not always immediate. You don’t want it to come back to bite you.”
Strasburg still has a handful of starts remaining, beginning Wednesday at the San Francisco Giants. At some point soon, perhaps one month from now, Strasburg will make his final start of this remarkable Nationals season. The people most affected, the players in the clubhouse, will move on, but not without grief.
“Yeah, I’ll shed a tear the day he gets shut down,” DeRosa said. “There’s no doubt about that.”
More on the Nationals:
Graphic: Zimmermann vs. Strasburg
Insider: Manipulating the rotation
Boswell: Nationals in good position
Box score: Nationals 14, Giants 2