The last time our nation’s capital hosted playoff baseball, the Golden Gate Bridge was under construction, Mount Rushmore had just been dedicated, the only thing we had to fear was fear itself, and Prohibition was in the process of being repealed. That year was 1933, which means D.C. has been waiting 79 years to witness what the Washington Nationals are about to do this season.
Back on September 7th, Stephen Strasburg (15-6, 3.16) had his worst outing of the season, as he lasted only three innings after giving up five runs on six hits; only 37 of his 67 pitches were strikes. The next morning, veteran manager Davey Johnson informed Strasburg that he would not be pitching again this season, ending the ace’s first full season since undergoing Tommy John surgery after 159 1/3 innings.
At the time of the Strasburg shutdown, the Nationals had a 6 ½ game lead on the Atlanta Braves with 24 games remaining. As of today, despite being swept over the weekend by Atlanta, the Nationals hold a five-game division lead with 16 left to play, as well as the best record in baseball. Barring a catastrophic meltdown, then, the Nationals are going to win the National League East for the first time in their short history.
Still, the majority of baseball writers and fans are angry and dumbfounded by the Nationals’ decision regarding Strasburg. Why, they’re asking, would a franchise that has not finished above .500 in their previous seven years of existence bench arguably the best pitcher in baseball in the midst of a pennant race?
Well, I will give you two reasons why the Nationals are unequivocally right in their decision to cut Stephen Strasburg’s season short.
First off, three Washington Nationals pitchers are in the top ten in ERA for the National League. None of them are named Stephen Strasburg.
Instead, they’re Gio Gonzalez (19-8, 2.95), Jordan Zimmermann (10-8, 3.01), and Ross Detwiler (9-6, 3.16), who all have been similarly lights-out for the Nats this year as the squad’s second, third and fourth starters.
To put this pitching staff into perspective, Homer Bailey (11-9, 3.93) of the Reds and 34-year-old Barry Zito (12-8, 4.21) of the Giants are the starting pitchers with the fourth-lowest ERA on the staffs of the other National League division leaders. Neither of them have stuff anywhere close to Strasburg’s. The Nationals’ fifth starter, meanwhile—
Edwin Jackson (9-10, 3.89)—is 30th in the NL in ERA a year after winning the World Series with the St. Louis Cardinals.
All things considered, it must be said that the Nationals aren’t going to experience some sort of enormous drop off in the quality of their pitching now that Strasburg is on the bench. Teams switch from five-man to four-man rotations during the playoffs, so Strasburg is more being subtracted from the playoff picture than replaced.
Gio Gonzalez leads the majors with 19 wins and is in a dead heat with Mets’ knuckle-baller R.A. Dickey for the N.L. CY Young award. Jordan Zimmermann is a quiet assassin who would be the ace on just about any other pitching staff; he was also the subject of an innings limit during the 2011 season as he returned from Tommy John surgery. Ross Detwiler is a lanky lefty with a dominant fastball that has flown under the radar all season long. Edwin Jackson is the veteran of the staff with the aforementioned World Series ring to boot.
Strasburg will be missed, but the remaining pitching staff is more than capable of bringing the title to D.C.
The second (and most important) reason for shutting down Strasburg is the bright future of the Washington Nationals organization. Since Major League Baseball sold the Nationals in 2006, general manager Mike Rizzo has done a fantastic job loading the roster and farm system with promising young talent. Gonzalez, Detwiler, and Zimmermann are all only 26, as is All-Star shortstop Ian Desmond. At 27, franchise cornerstone Ryan Zimmerman is in his prime, Strasburg is 24, and, oh yeah, there’s that Bryce Harper guy, too—he’s just 19.
The Nationals have a rock-solid core of players that are just coming into their prime, so it would be foolish to think that they’re not going to contend for the next seven years just with the talent they already have. This team has showed extreme patience in arriving where they are today, and the Strasburg decision is in absolute accordance with the fundamental beliefs that have gotten the Nationals this far.
Just think: in three years, Strasburg will be throwing complete games, and Bryce Harper might be the best all-around player in baseball. Risking a potential career-threatening injury to Strasburg’s surgically repaired elbow is not worth risking what the future has in store.
Take it from a diehard fan who can name the original nine (Hernandez, Schneider, Johnson, Vidro, Castilla, Guzman, Sledge, Wilkerson, Guillen), still gets chills thinking about Zimmerman’s walk-off during the first game at the new ballpark, and watched just about every game of the 59-103 2009 season.
Anything the Nationals win this year is a bonus, and where the Nats really expect to win is still in the future. 2012 would be nice, but 2013-2020 has some serious dynastic potential.