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Unsportsmanlike Conduct: Nats misguided on Strasburg shutdown
Most people know that D.C. has a Major League Baseball team, but much fewer know that that team is poised to make the playoffs for the first time in its seven-year history. As of Thursday, the Washington Nationals are in first place by six games in the NL East, a division in which the Nationals have been perennial cellar dwellers since their inception. Despite all of this exciting news, it would probably be smart for Nationals faithfuls to temper their expectations just a tad, because the team is about to shut down star pitcher Stephen Strasburg for the rest of the season. According to manager Davey Johnson, the shutdown will result in Strasburg likely missing two to three starts in addition to the entire playoffs.
The arguments for an innings limit are clear. After having Tommy John surgery in late 2010, Strasburg needs to be protected from overuse. Many scouts have stated that Strasburg’s aggressive pitching motion puts him at serious risk for injury, which is something that would obviously make the Nationals cautious, as they are counting on Strasburg to remain one of the faces of the franchise. There are numerous stories of young phenom pitchers who have thrown out their arms before they reached their prime; the Nationals are trying to keep Strasburg from becoming one of those burnouts as best they can. With such a talented young team (the sixth youngest in MLB), the Nationals have reason to believe that they’ll be serious contenders in future years, but only if that future includes Strasburg.
Still, despite all of these arguments, the Nationals are making a mistake by shutting down Strasburg. Baseball is an unpredictable game, and no team is ever guaranteed success. Even the big spenders sometimes struggle; two of the league’s top three teams with regard to payroll – the Red Sox and the Phillies – are having terrible years, With even these heavy spenders tending to be unpredictable, it’s tough for a team with an average-sized payroll, such as the Nationals, to say with full confidence that they will contend for a title in the future.
So, maybe the Nationals are finally looking to become big spenders. One really smart way to do that is to attract lots of fans, something the Nationals have failed to do before this year. But if I was a fan of the Nationals and my team was in first place in the division, I certainly would not want that team sitting the man that played a big part in putting them on top. Come playoff time, pitchers tend to play a big role; a team that’s able to put an ace out on the mound twice in a five-game series has a huge advantage. And if the Nationals do not want to use Strasburg that much, then just having him make one start is good enough.
And even if the innings limit is a good idea, why didn’t the Nationals have Strasburg skip some starts to save him for the playoffs? It’s not as if this team recently went on a magical run; they’ve been leading their division for a while now. Why didn’t the team have Strasburg rest against bad teams or take him out of a few games a little earlier, saving him for when it really mattered? Shutting down Strasburg is bad for everyone involved with the Nationals. Strasburg will come to think of himself as fragile, which will not be good for his self-confidence. Team morale will also go down, as teammates will see the franchise babying one of the young stars and could come to resent both management and Strasburg. Then there’s the obvious problem that without Strasburg, the team would suffer, and that suffering could turn a real contender into a welcome mat for other teams to walk over as they made their way into the next round of the playoffs. The Nationals management has the best intentions in mind for Strasburg and the team, but is trying to achieve those goals the wrong way.