That is by far the most important number related to Stephen Strasburg’s 2012 season. Not 62, his current ADP according to Mock Draft Central, with a range of 35-90 in mixed drafts. Not 9.3, his K/9 according to ZiPS, which is actually on the lower end of most projections that have been published so far. Not 5, the number of both the number of starts he made during the fantasy playoffs last year or his projected WAR according to the fan projections. 160, or the number of innings the Nationals are believed to have capped Strasburg at for the 2012 season before taking the leash off in 2013.
It is the same cap the Nats placed on Jordan Zimmermann in his first full season back from the same Tommy John surgery that cost Strasburg almost all of the 2011 season, and lest anyone think that the Nats are all talk, Zimmermann threw 161.1 innings and was promptly handed a warm-up jacket and a spot on the bench for the rest of the season.
Assuming Strasburg duplicates something resembling Zimmermann’s 6ish innings per start, his 160 innings will be up at the end of August, which means potential owners will have him for the vast majority of the season, but will lose him just in time for most playoffs to start. Having Strasburg will almost certainly enhance a team’s chances of making the playoffs — fantasy playoffs or the actual major league playoffs — but being left without a top starter when the money is actually on the line is a rather unappealing proposition, and that’s where this ADPuzzle comes from.
The Strasburg conundrum is more or less limited to redraft players. Keeper players will have already kept Strasburg and will continue to do so in all but the oddest of circumstances. Losing him for the playoffs is a rough bounce, but when he’s back at full capacity in 2013, the payoff will be well worth the wait. If you’re trying to win this year, I do think it would be worth drafting another SP1 just so that you’re not left high and dry come the end of the season.
Before getting into the nitty-gritty of his value, it should be noted that I love Strasburg. His starts are appointment television as far as I’m concerned, and when the cap is off in 2013, he’ll be one of the few pitchers who might get me to break my rule of always waiting on pitching. The principle in play here is Opportunity Cost: What are you giving up to celebrate Strasmas once or twice a week until he turns into a pumpkin?
I see very few scenarios where I’m willing to draft Strasburg anywhere close to his top range in the 30s. For most drafts, that means grabbing him in the 3rd or 4th round, ahead of players like Jered Weaver and Dan Haren, who may be able to match Strasburg’s production when he’s playing, then give owners an extra month of work. Even if no one is making an overly aggressive play for Strasburg, there’s still a substantial set of talent around him in most draft queues. Looking only at pitchers, drafting Strasburg at his current ADP means missing out most notably on Madison Bumgarner, but could also mean passing up on his teammate Matt Cain, who is going in the same range as Strasburg. Even if Cain and Bumgarner are both gone, the 60-80 range where Strasburg typically lands is thick with arms: Ian Kennedy, Mat Latos, Daniel Hudson, and C.J. Wilson are all available with ADPs in that neighborhood. On talent alone, Strasburg is still better than those four, but is he better than those four when they have an extra month to amass strikeouts and wins? I just don’t think so, though I’m sure there are those who would be willing to disagree.
There is one contingency that hasn’t really been addressed and that’s what the Nats would do with Strasburg if they were in a playoff chase when he hits his innings cap. As much as I like the Nats this year, I think they’re still a year away from really challenging for a wild card spot. But if the Commissioner’s Office has their way and there are extra wild cards this year, who’s to say the Nats wouldn’t be in a position to challenge for that spot. Is the first playoff birth since the franchise was reborn a good enough reason to toss aside the cap?
I’m not familiar with Mike Rizzo’s thinking enough to say for sure, but given that they’re worried enough about Strasburg’s elbow to cap his innings in the first place, my instinct is to say no. Still, that potential changes his profile ever so slightly, since it opens up the possibility — no matter how slight — that Strasburg could be an asset in the fantasy playoffs.
In all the mocks I’ve done so far, waiting on pitching has served me well, and with Strasburg’s ADP already near the top of where I’d be comfortable taking him, I’ve moved away from targeting him in drafts. I’ll hate having to go against him in head-to-head, but with the talent available in the same range, it’s not worth it to me to have to try and replace him for the last 3-4 weeks of the season when I need him the most.