Twenty-three months after Strasburg underwent Tommy John surgery, Nationals general manager Mike Rizzo and manager Davey Johnson understandably want to protect the former No. 1 overall pick, who, at just 23 years old, projects to be the ace of their rotation for years to come.
But as the Nationals' season shifts more and more from "feel-good story" to "legitimate World Series contender," it may not be feasible for Washington management to bench one of the most dominant pitchers in the National League. The World Series hasn't come to the nation's capital since 1933, and with a drought like that on the line, D.C.-area fans will be clamoring for their prize pitcher to remain in the rotation.
So far in 2012, Strasburg has made 18 starts, pitching on the normal four days' rest and putting up an impressive 10-4 record to go with a 2.66 ERA and a league-leading 135 strikeouts. But he's also thrown 105 innings to this point. It should also be noted that none of these outings has lasted longer than seven innings, with the average hovering just under six. At his current rate, Strasburg would be able to make nine more starts before reaching the 160-inning limit.
Rizzo and Johnson have a few options going forward. None of them are ideal, but things rarely work out perfectly when you're running a Major League Baseball team.
Option one would be for Washington to keep doing what it has been doing — sending Strasburg out every five days and pulling him from the game early — and calling Strasburg's season quits as soon as he hits 160 innings, no matter what. The drawback to the approach is obvious — Strasburg would quickly reach his limit and be left unable to help the Nationals in the playoffs.
Option two would be to skip a start here or there and be even more judicious with how many innings Strasburg pitches in each start. The problem is that it would take Strasburg out of his rhythm and, even if Strasburg gets skipped a couple times in the rotation, he would still likely run up against the innings limit before the postseason begins.
The third option would be to let Strasburg pitch until he gets close to the allotted 160 and then use him in high-leverage situations late in the regular season or postseason out of the bullpen, much in the same way the Rays used David Price in their run to the 2008 World Series. It's not uncommon for a starter to take on a bullpen role in the playoffs, but this option again sees Strasburg surpass the 160-inning limit with some extremely high-intensity postseason pitches thrown in there as well.
Of course, there are a multitude of ways to manage Strasburg's innings, but the approach that the Nationals take will likely feature aspects of one of the three options outlined above. Ideally, Washington could tell Strasburg to take a month off and resume pitching in late August, but such an approach is simply not feasible. It should also be noted that none of these options take into consideration Strasburg's opinion. But it's a safe bet that, because he's a major league pitcher, Strasburg will want to pitch as much as possible to help his team win.
The best choice here is probably option No. 2, since it keeps Strasburg's arm fresh while still allowing him to help the team down the stretch. But once the playoffs roll around — and with the way the rest of the Nationals' rotation is pitching, they will — Washington needs to shift its priorities from protecting its investment to winning a championship. Obviously, the Nationals want Strasburg to remain healthy, but nothing is certain in sports, which is why Strasburg needs to pitch in the playoffs.
Ideally, Strasburg would end the regular season at around 150 innings (having skipped the requisite number of starts while keeping his outings short) and once the playoffs begin, he would pitch like any other member of the rotation. That means that Strasburg would pitch the whole game if he's feeling it — winning a playoff game is just too important.
The Nationals could ameliorate things by preventing Strasburg from pitching on short rest in the playoffs — but if a Game 7 of the NLCS or World Series rolls around, Strasburg has to be an option out of the bullpen on two or three days' rest. You can't deny a player of his caliber the chance to live out his childhood dream because of an arbitrary innings limit.
In the end, it comes down to one question: Do the Nationals — and Strasburg — want to risk his long-term health for a chance at the franchise's first World Series title?
Washington's management may be inclined to say no, but for Strasburg, the answer is probably yes. That doesn't mean that Johnson throws Strasburg out there as much as possible, but he has to be okay with Strasburg throwing 170, or even 180 innings if that's what it takes for the Nationals to win the World Series. Just as in poker, Washington can't win big without betting big first.