Oh, there’s a way out, if Washington Nationals general manager Mike Rizzo wants it.
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All Rizzo needs to say is this:
“I still believe that shutting down Stephen Strasburg is the right thing to do — the right thing for his long-term health, and for the organization’s future.
“But clearly, circumstances have changed. Our team has a chance to do something special. And while I cannot advocate that Stephen continue to pitch, I will consider relenting if he and his agent, Scott Boras, ask me to revisit my decision.”
Bingo! Rizzo would be off the hook.
And imagine the fallout once the onus shifted to Boras, who has said publicly that Strasburg wants to pitch, but is following the advice of Dr. Lewis Yocum, who performed his Tommy John surgery in September 2010.
Boras surely would not back down, forcing Strasburg into a position in which he had to tell his teammates — five of whom also are Boras clients — “Sorry guys, but Scott says this is the way it has to be.”
Oh. My. Goodness.
Sure, the Nats would risk damaging their relationships with Boras and Strasburg if Rizzo pulled such a stunt. But who cares?
Boras would not turn down their money for free-agent center fielder Michael Bourn this offseason or any other client in the future.
Strasburg, meanwhile, still would be under the Nationals’ control for four more seasons — and after that, Boras probably would peddle him to the highest bidder, anyway.
Alas, the chances of such a confrontation between Rizzo and Boras rank between slim and none as the first-place Nationals continue their weekend series against the St. Louis Cardinals (Saturday, MLB on FOX, 4:10 p.m. ET).
The GM and agent remain in lockstep on Operation Shutdown, and seemingly just about everything else. Manager Davey Johnson told reporters Thursday that Strasburg probably has only two or three starts left, starting with Sunday’s series finale.
Which raises the question: Who exactly is running this club?
Boras recently told the Washington Post, “Rizzo and I put this team together,” and suggested that the Nats might have faced charges of negligence from their insurance company if they had not followed Yocum’s protocol for Strasburg.
There is no way to know if such considerations influenced the decision. Rizzo, since spring training, has been adamant that Strasburg would not pitch a full season. He also has taken full responsibility for that choice, saying that it was his alone.
Many assume that Rizzo specified a 160-inning limit for Strasburg; the Nats shut down right-hander Jordan Zimmermann after 161 1/3 innings under similar circumstances in 2011.
Rizzo, though, never actually gave a number, telling the Post in February, “We’re going to run him out there until his innings are gone, and then stop him from pitching.”
Strasburg is now at 150 1/3 innings. He pitched only 44 last season, 20 in the majors. The jump is a legitimate concern, and the Nats have a ready replacement, veteran lefty John Lannan, who has thrown back-to-back shutouts and has a 1.63 ERA in his last five starts at Triple A.
Still, instead of backing himself into a corner last spring, all Rizzo needed to say was this:
“We’re going to monitor Stephen closely. Our eyes and our doctors will tell us when he needs to be shut down, if at all.”
With that, there would have been no story, nothing to distract from the Nationals’ brilliant season — a season that, by the way, is testament to Rizzo’s masterful work in putting the Nats together, work that should make him a leading candidate for Executive of the Year.
The Nats still might have shut down Strasburg — if he became fatigued, lost his command, lost velocity, whatever. But they would have made their determination for a specific reason rather than some vague notion of what is best for the pitcher.
The truth is, no one knows for certain what is best, not even the doctors.
Did Rizzo overreact initially, trying to eliminate any notion that Boras was behind the decision? Or, did Rizzo truly act on his beliefs, trying to demonstrate leadership and shield the rest of the organization from criticism?
Either way, he’s now stuck.
Strasburg (15-6, 3.05) had a poor start Tuesday in Florida after producing a 1.50 ERA in his previous four. Maybe he is indeed starting to wear down, in which case few will dispute the shutdown. Or maybe he will get back on a roll, giving the debate even greater life.
One thing we know: Rizzo has yet to distance himself from Boras.
If Rizzo is having second thoughts about Operation Shutdown — and there is zero indication that he is — he might not want to say, “I’m the GM. I reserve the right to change my mind.” Boras probably would flip out, saying that the Nationals are showing too little regard for Strasburg’s health.
Better for Rizzo to shift the onus to Boras and take it off of himself.
Why should Rizzo be beholden to Boras — or any agent, for that matter? Why should he continue to foster the perception that the interests of one player supersede the interests of the other 24?