By shutting down Stephen Strasburg after 159 1/3 innings, the Washington Nationals are clearly aiming to protect their investment. With the cautious approach comes repercussions, though, and the decision could ultimately be counterproductive.
Not only are the Nats going to be without their ace as they head down the stretch and into the postseason, a scenario Washington fans aren't exactly thrilled about, but they've upset their young star and sent a questionable message to the rest of the club. That's a high price to pay for removing a perfectly healthy young phenom from the rotation, even if it ensures the 24-year-old should be back stronger than ever in 2013 — roughly two years removed from Tommy John surgery.
Strasburg's impact on the Nationals' rotation is obvious. He concludes his 2012 campaign with a 15-6 record, a 3.16 ERA and a 1.15 WHIP, all of which has contributed greatly to Washington's success. The Nationals lead the majors in quality starts (87), and are second in ERA (3.32), WHIP (1.21) and batting average against (.235). With a staff comprised of talented arms in Strasburg, Gio Gonzalez, Jordan Zimmerman, Edwin Jackson and Ross Detwiler, the Nationals could easily be tabbed the National League favorites as we head into October. That's something that might not change in the wake of Strasburg's shut-down — as clearly there's enough pitching talent to weather the storm — but taking a top-of-the-rotation starter out of the equation never helps. Never.
Aside from the obvious blow the Nats are dealt by this decision, shutting Strasburg down early has other, longer-lasting ramifications, and they start with Strasburg's morale taking a hit.
"I don't know if I'm ever going to accept it, to be honest," Strasburg said Saturday, according to The Washington Post. "It's something that I'm not happy about at all. That's not why I play the game. I play the game to be a good teammate and win. You don't grow up dreaming about playing in the big leagues to get shut down when the games start to matter. It's going to be a tough one to swallow."
Strasburg knew before the season that the Nationals intended to shut him down, but he admits he hoped things would change. Perhaps the righty eventually comes to grips with the organization's decision and this whole debacle will be forgotten a year from now, but the Nationals are really playing with fire at this point. Strasburg is arbitration eligible after next season, and there is going to come a time in the not-so-distant future when the Nationals are going to have to pony up some cash in order to keep the former No. 1 overall pick — and Scott Boras client — in the nation's capital. Right now, it's easy to overlook Strasburg's contractual future because the debate centers mostly around Washington's decision to sit arguably its best pitcher just before the postseason, but we may look back at this weekend as the point at which the pitcher's relationship with the team started to sour. In other words, the Nationals are aiming to protect their investment, but by failing to appease Strasburg's desire to pitch, they could essentially be protecting someone else's investment if he eventually tests the open market.
"I was always thinking things were going to change," Strasburg told reporters Saturday. "But this is a decision they made well before the start of the year. I play for the Washington Nationals. I play to help this team win games. I'm not the one making the calls."
The Nationals' front office obviously knows what it's doing. You don't have to look any further than the team's rapid turnaround as proof of that. However, Washington's refusal to alter its plan has to be a bit alarming not only to those currently in the locker room but to those who could someday join it. Money talks, and this 2012 dilemma may never even cross a free agent's mind when considering Washington as a potential home, but since having Strasburg in the rotation greatly increases the Nationals' World Series chances, it's hard to come away from this situation thinking that the team has a win-at-all-costs mentality. Sure, it shows the Nationals are willing to stick to their guns, but a lack of flexibility could also be seen as a turn-off in the eyes of many.
Limiting Strasburg's workload this season was considered a cautious approach when the idea was conceptualized, but what we're actually looking at is a major gamble. It's hard to put a finger on the pay-off, though, and the risks are quite large.