John Clay: Choice is tough but clear in Strasburg debate

Herald-Leader Sports ColumnistAugust 15, 2012 

Phillies Nationals Baseball

Washington Nationals starting pitcher Stephen Strasburg delivers in the fourth inning of a baseball game against the Philadelphia Phillies, Tuesday, July 31, 2012, in Washington. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)


Some see Mike Rizzo as ridiculously hard-headed.

I see him as heroic.

Rizzo is the Washington Nationals general manager who made the decision to shut down his star starting pitcher Stephen Strasburg sometime next month, probably after 180 innings.

It is baseball's topic du jour. The Nationals sport the best record in baseball, yet will be without the team's best starting pitcher for the most important part of the campaign.

The 24-year-old Strasburg underwent Tommy John surgery in 2010 and came back to pitch 24 innings last season. The Nationals decided before opening day this year that they would end the fireballer's 2012 season after he met a pre-determined innings limit.

Washington said its record, its place in the standings, or possible playoff implications would not matter as much as Strasburg's long-term health and career.

It still doesn't.

"I'm a stubborn guy," Rizzo says in almost every article you Google on the Strasburg issue.

Much of baseball and many in the media believe the general manager to be insane. You have to go for the title, they say. Right here, right now. The window of opportunity is often small. Who knows what could happen next year?

The old saying: Tomorrow never comes.

Rizzo is more Fleetwood Mac, don't stop thinking about tomorrow. He wants more than a one-year run for his Nats. The best way to do that is to keep Strasburg healthy.

Does shutting down the right-hander guarantee many injury-free seasons? No. Strasburg could hurt his arm next year or the year after. Injuries happen.

Yet Rizzo says he has done plenty of research on the situation and feels confident he's taking the right path, even if the sample size is small. There are not many pitchers who throw in the high 90s and also underwent Tommy John surgery.

Here are two: Miami's Josh Johnson and ex-Chicago Cub Kerry Wood.

As Jayson Stark of ESPN pointed out, a year after undergoing ligament surgery at age 23, Johnson pitched 209 innings at age 25. He's had more arm problems since, pitching just 60 innings in 2011 at age 27. But he's bounced back to throw 1471⁄3 innings this season.

Wood underwent surgery at 22 and then averaged nearly 200 innings a year from age 24 to age 26. He was never the same and is now retired.

The Nationals aren't trying something new with Strasburg. They shut down Jordan Zimmermann last year after 161 innings when the now 26-year-old right-hander was coming off Tommy John surgery. Zimmermann is currently 9-7 with a 2.38 ERA.

Leo Mazzone, the crusty former Atlanta Braves pitching coach, went on ESPN Radio on Wednesday and said of the plan, "I think it's absolutely pathetic, to be honest with you."

Mazzone insisted it was unfair to the Nationals veterans who might not get another chance at playing in the post-season, as if it was Strasburg's and Rizzo's responsibility to make sure every player wins a World Series.

Rizzo told the Washington Post's Thomas Boswell that even his own father disagrees with him.

Good pitching is a prized commodity, however, that should be treated carefully, not recklessly. Especially young pitching. Through medicine and data we now know more than we ever did before about arms and pitchers and the long-term effects that workload has on a pitcher's arm.

Moreover, starting pitchers of Strasburg's ability don't come around often. The Nats are smart to protect their investment even if it means sacrificing short-term success.

Even World Series success.

John Clay: (859) 231-3226.Email: jclay@herald-leader.comBlog: Twitter: @johnclayiv.

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