The Washington Nationals entered the 2012 season with a plan to limit Stephen Strasburg‘s activity. Since the flamethrowing ace recently underwent Tommy John Surgery, this was a medical decision designed to work him back into shape without overexertion. The team never announced a specific activity threshold, but it was generally believed to be around 160 innings, or the normal equivalency in total pitches thrown.
The Nationals followed a similar plan with Jordan Zimmermann last year, shutting him down after 161.1 innings. The obvious difference between this year and last year is that the Nationals are now legitimate playoff contenders.
Last season, the Nationals were fighting to reach .500, so losing Zimmermann after an August 28 start wasn’t as huge of a deal. This year, the Nationals have a great chance to make the playoffs, but their odds of succeeding in the postseason are clearly reduced if the starting rotation lacks its best pitcher.
Seeing as Strasburg has already thrown 100 innings this season — 99 in the regular season and his one inning all-star game appearance — it’s making for quite the interesting dilemma. General Manager Mike Rizzo was adamant that the team would stick to the plan no matter how well it was playing. Given Rizzo’s word, what’s important for the Nationals now isn’t figuring out how to manipulate Strasburg’s starts to keep him pitching into September and October. Instead, with the trade deadline fast approaching, they need to figure out who is going to replace him to increase their odds of making, and succeeding in, the playoffs.
Back in March, Paul Swydan wrote an excellent piece on how the Nationals could manage Strasburg’s playing time, as the current scenario was easy to envision. The Nationals were a very talented team and were considered a sleeper contender by many. One option was to simply let Strasburg pitch and he would get shut down when he hit the predetermined threshold, whether that was late July, early August, or whenever.
Another option was to utilize a six-man rotation so that he started fewer games. Sticking to just five innings per start was another suggestion, as 30 starts at that rate only equals 150 innings. The Nationals ultimately just let Strasburg pitch, and while his innings were managed a bit more carefully than others, he has thrown 6+ innings in 13 of his 17 starts, and six or seven innings over his last seven starts.
The Nationals aren’t going to want to tinker with his innings from here on out, which means it’s inevitable that he’ll get shut down before playoff-time. The team fortified its rotation this offseason by acquiring Gio Gonzalez from the Athletics and signing Edwin Jackson. The Nationals also have a $5 million starter in the minors in John Lannan. The Chien-Ming Wang experiment didn’t go as planned, however, so it’s tougher to fill Strasburg’s role internally.
There are a number of available starting pitchers that wouldn’t replace Strasburg’s productivity, but would lessen the dropoff from him to, say, Lannan or someone else in the Nationals system.
The Nationals have a very solid farm system and could afford to part ways with a few prospects for another starter who may or may not be a rental, depending on his caliber and contract status. Zack Greinke‘s name instantly springs to mind as an example of the type that could sign a long-term extension after being acquired.
A rotation featuring Strasburg, Greinke, Zimmermann and Gonzalez would be downright scary in the future. Nobody else realistically available could come as close to matching, or besting, Strasburg as Greinke.
The Nationals probably wouldn’t surrender a tremendous haul for a three-month rental, but if they believed a contract extension was in the cards, this would represent a major splash that would improve their playoff odds this year and seriously improve the team next season. Matt Garza isn’t as talented as Greinke but is another extension candidate who would lessen the dropoff from Strasburg to someone internally with less of a prospect cost.
If the Nationals don’t want to make that type of splash, they could turn to Ryan Dempster, or even someone like Kevin Millwood, Shaun Marcum, Jason Vargas or Derek Lowe. Perhaps the Marlins could be persuaded into trading Anibal Sanchez as well. There is no shortage of available starting pitchers that could help weather the storm, and while it’s unclear who the Nationals plan on pursuing, it seems abundantly clear that they need someone else.
The returns of Jayson Werth and Drew Storen will help increase team-wide productivity but the Nationals are in a very interesting position with regards to the starting rotation. Gonzalez, Jackson and Zimmermann is still a pretty damn good starting trio for a postseason series, but that extra rotation reinforcement could go a long way towards helping the Nationals make a strong case for being league, and not just divisional, favorites this season.