Sunday, September 2nd, 2012

The Strasburg Dilemma: Long-term Investment vs. World Series Run

The Washington Nationals haven't appeared in the postseason since the early days of the Reagan administration. That was 1981 and they played north of the border as the Montreal Expos. Since the franchise passed through customs and settled in the District of Columbia following the 2004 season, they finished .500 once. That was in 2005 and they finished with 81 wins and 81 losses. Last year, they finished the season with 80 wins. Entering action today, the Nationals have matched last year's win total and sit atop the National League East with a 6 1/2 game lead over the Atlanta Braves. In terms of regular season wins, this ranks this season as the 16th best in franchise history. With each win in September, they will accelerate up that list. The 1979 Expos won 95 games and failed to reach the postseason. They finished second in the NL East, two games behind the eventual World Series champion Pittsburgh Pirates. Barring an implosion comparable to the 1964 Philadelphia Phillies, they will challenge the '79 team for the top spot.

This afternoon, the Nationals will send Stephen Strasburg (15-6, 3.05 ERA) to the mound to battle the St. Louis Cardinals. Strasburg was drafted by the Nationals in June 2009 and he rocketed to stardom during his big league debut the following June when he fanned 14 Pirates. In August 2010, was placed under the knife for Tommy John surgery to repair a damaged elbow. Following his surgery and rehabilitation, Strasburg returned to the Nationals in September 2011.

Since the start of spring training in 2012, Nationals management remained steadfast that Strasburg would not pitch the entire season. At some still technically undisclosed date, he would be shutdown in favor of his long-term health and earning potential. With the addition of the 19-year-old rookie outfielder, Bryce Harper (.256 BA, .762 OPS, 15 HR, 45 RBI), the Nationals have become a legitimate threat in the National League. As of this morning, the Nationals possess the highest winning percentage (.606) in the majors, and rank second to only the Cincinnati Reds (81) in wins. According to reports, the Nationals will shutdown Strasburg after two or three more starts.

Following those three starts, the Nationals will find themselves immersed in a pennant race on the verge of clinching their first NL East title since the move. I understand the dilemma the team faces - leveraging their pitching rotation of future against World Series run in the present. As a Chicago Cubs fan, I understand that championship runs do not occur every season. This situation calls to mind the days of Kerry Wood and Mark Prior. Should the Cubs have handled the two pitchers in a similar fashion? The only difference is that both Wood and Prior were healthy during the 2003 National League Championship Series (NLCS) when the Cubs failed after coming five outs from reaching the World Series. When the Nationals plan to shutdown Strasburg, they intend to place him on the shelf for the team's entire playoff run. That means a run through the NLDS, NLCS, and potentially the World Series without the arm that lead them to this point.

Let's fast forward five seasons. Will the Nationals being looking back at 2012 as a missed opportunity? How many times will they have been in contention following that decision? Will Stephen Strasburg ever experience arm problems again? Should the Nationals have implemented a different course of action? Perhaps Strasburg could have delayed his season and started pitching in May? Could they have implemented a six-man rotation? Could he have skipped starts throughout the year?

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