Earlier this week, I asked Washington Nationals general manager Mike Rizzo for his assessment of Stephen Strasburg’s season.
“He’s looked great,” Rizzo said. Then he paused for a moment and added glibly: “Better than ever.”
A big-picture question about Strasburg’s performance or health is an inherently loaded one, and Rizzo acknowledged as much by the tone of his answer. As Rizzo spoke, Strasburg’s statistics through 11 starts were comparable to the same point in 2012 — close enough that Rizzo could argue (however implicitly) his 24-year-old ace had benefited from last season’s controversial September shutdown.
Then Strasburg exited Friday’s start against the Atlanta Braves after two innings. Nationals manager Davey Johnson said Strasburg has a strained right oblique.
And here we go again.
Strasburg experienced forearm tightness in a late-April start against the Braves but didn’t miss his next turn. Now this. The next stop could be a stay on the disabled list.
Depending on your perspective, the recurrent concerns emphasize how wrong — or how right — the Nationals were to halt Strasburg’s 2012 season at 159 1/3 innings: Either the Nationals should have taken their best chance at a World Series when their fragile ace was (mostly) healthy last year, or Rizzo was correct in recognizing that Strasburg will need to be handled with extreme care in order to have a career of any meaningful length.
My view remains unchanged from what I wrote here last September: The Nationals erred by not (a) delaying the start of Strasburg’s 2012 season so he could pitch in the playoffs or (b) adjusting their innings limit once it became apparent the team had evolved into a legitimate World Series contender ahead of schedule.
The organization’s strategy came with no guarantees, and it was carried out in a manner that opened up the Nationals to continual second-guessing unless they won the World Series. (They didn’t.)
But Rizzo doesn’t regret the decision.
“Whenever I’ve been a development guy, this is the plan we had,” Rizzo told me before the Nationals’ game in Baltimore Wednesday. “It got a lot of publicity, a lot of notoriety, because of the plan and the participants. But this is the way we do it.
“I’ve had success doing it this way in my career. This is our philosophy. We work hand-in-hand with the rehab guys, the (minor-league) pitching coordinators, our major-league pitching coach. We feel this is the best way to handle these things, or we wouldn’t do it. The easiest thing in the world would have been not to do it.”
Rizzo’s team arrived in spring training this year as a popular pick to win the World Series. The GM reiterated to me this week that Strasburg faces no further innings limits. But the Nationals have been a disappointment, thanks to injuries and an inconsistent offense. They are a mediocre 28-27. Superstar Bryce Harper was placed on the DL Saturday with an injured knee. Now Strasburg’s status is murky, too.
What if the Nationals miss the playoffs this year? What if 2012 was their best chance to win it all during Strasburg’s tenure with the team? What if there is something amiss in Strasburg’s pitching physiology that will prevent him from becoming the 200-inning workhorse he’s supposedly destined to be?
During our conversation this week, I asked Rizzo if the Nationals need to win the World Series to justify last year’s Strasburg shutdown.
“To me, a lot of that’s beyond our control,” he said. “To win it all, we have to do what’s right for each individual player. If we do that, it becomes what’s right for the whole and it gives us the best chance.
“With those guys on the field, it gives us the best chance to win the most games and to go as deep as you can in the playoffs. Beyond that, a lot of it is out of the GM’s and the manager’s control, how far you go in the playoffs. Can you win a World Series? There’s only one team that wins it every year.
“To answer your question, I don’t think we need to win the World Series to justify what we did.”
The Nationals must tell themselves that. Better to philosophize about what might be than gaze into the emptiness of what should have been.