Shutting Down Stephen Strasburg Makes Sense Long-Term, But Nationals Owe It to Themselves to Play for Now

Shutting Down Stephen Strasburg Makes Sense Long-Term, But Nationals Owe It to Themselves to Play for NowThe Washington Nationals are going to shut down Stephen Strasburg.

Once more, with emphasis: the first-place Washington Nationals are going to willingly tell their best pitcher, their ace, to stop taking the mound every five days in the middle of a pennant race.

In theory, this makes a little bit of sense. Strasburg underwent Tommy John surgery in 2010, only pitched 44 innings in 2011 and has already this year thrown the most innings of his professional career.

But what the Nationals are forgetting is that you can never take anything for granted in baseball — even a player's health when you do everything right. There's no guarantee, and there's no evidence, that shutting down Strasburg will ensure he has the long and illustrious career the team hoped for when they drafted him No. 1 in 2009.

Pitching is fickle, and so is a team's success. In reigning in their ace, the Nationals could very well be costing themselves the best chance they get at winning a championship with Strasburg.

"One of my rules of managing is I try to do what's best today with an eye on tomorrow," Nationals manager Davey Johnson told Pardon the Interruption on Wednesday. "What's best for Strasburg is looking ahead in his future."

The Nationals may be ahead of schedule in their rebuilding process, but even with a strong core of young players, they owe it to themselves to put everything they can into this shot at winning. If Gio Gonzalez or Jayson Werth goes down with an injury next year, having Strasburg for a full season isn't going to matter much. They're healthy now, they're in first place — they should be going for it.

They have one of the best pitching staffs in baseball, and they might be able to make the playoffs even without Strasburg. But the biggest sin the Nats may have committed this season is knowing about their plan to limit their ace's innings, but completely botching its execution.

If the Nationals were absolutely, always, no matter what going to pull back Strasburg after 160 innings, then the time to yank him out of the rotation was in the spring. Yes, every game counts, and Strasburg has been a big part of the Nats' success so far. But when push comes to shove, having your ace going for you in September and October is infinitely more valuable than having him in April and March.

That approach would have required some tricky maneuvering to get Strasburg up to speed without going through his usual spring training routine, granted. But wouldn't it be easier than introducing a new pitcher into the rotation, either stretching out a reliever or calling on a minor leaguer?

Shutting down Stephen Strasburg could have made sense months ago. But the time for that has come and gone, and now the Nationals risk injuring not a pitcher's arm, but a team's psyche.

The Nationals are playing for the future — but what if their future is now?

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