Stephen Strasburg's Innings Limit Dampers Playoff Aspirations for the Washington Nationals

By Bryan Lutz

Similar to the Ferrari Cameron Frye’s dad has in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, the Washington Nationals have a Ferrari they don’t want to ruin.

Stephen Strasburg’s right arm is the golden ticket for years to come in Washington. And according to the Washington Nationals’ skipper, Davey Johnson, Strasburg’s innings will be limited to a maximum of 160.

Now, there are a lot of ways to go about this strategy. The first one, which is what general manager Mike Rizzo wants to do, is using Strasburg to start the season, and shut him down when his innings are up. Rizzo stated the following to the USA Today:

“There’s not going to be a whole lot of tinkering going on. We’re going to run him out there until his innings are done … He’s a young pitcher that’s still learning how to pitch in the big leagues. I think it’s unfair to get him ramped up in spring training and start the season on a regular rotation and then shut him down or skip him. We’re just going to make him comfortable.”

This is the right strategy to use if the Nationals had a bad team for 2012. However, the Washington Nationals have a playoff caliber team for the first time in their existence. According to my WAR projections, I have the Nationals at 87.6 wins, which is good enough to win the wildcard. Of course, these are my projections, and my opinion certainly isn’t in the majority, but the Nationals are a lot better than people think.

Even without Strasburg, the Nationals have three pitchers (Gonzalez, Jackson, Zimmerman) who at the bare minimum will have 3-WAR seasons. I think it’s highly possible that the switch of leagues will benefit Gio Gonzalez enough to break the 4-WAR plateau, and Edwin Jackson is guaranteed to pitch over quality 200 innings. In the case for Jordan Zimmerman, he is version of Stras-Lite (sounds like a beer).

Zimmerman’s path to the majors is similar to Strasburg’s, minus the pomp and circumstances along the way. Zimmerman started his promising career in 2009, but it was cut short due to an arm injury that required Tommy John surgery. Like Strasburg, in late September of the following year, Zimmerman got his feet wet again, pitching around 30 innings. And in 2011, Zimmerman threw 161 innings, earning him a 3.4 fWAR.

In theory, the Nationals want Strasburg’s 2012 to be very similar to Zimmerman’s 2011.

Good, great, grand, wonderful, no playoffs for the Nationals!

When the Nationals are either leading the division/wildcard, or trailing by a minimal of games in September, are the Nationals really going to deprive fans of a playoff run?

That is why Rizzo’s strategy, which worked for Zimmerman, will not work for Strasburg. Even if Strasburg only pitches 160 innings, he is better than 90 percent of the pitchers who will throw over 200 innings. I have Strasburg pegged for 6.1 fWAR, which is a big reason why I have them in the playoffs. If the Nationals decide to take the route cutting Strasburg’s season short before it ends, why not just delay his season to begin with?

It’s such an obvious move to make that it’s easy to overlook. Don’t bring Strasburg to Spring Training with everyone else, have him pitch in the last week of spring training, keep him in the minors for April, and boom goes the dynamite. You have one of the best pitchers in baseball for the remainder of the season. Plus, it avoids the nasty decision the Nationals will have to make if Strasburg’s innings limit is up in the middle of a playoff race. I can’t imagine the outrage of Nationals’ fans if Strasburg was shelved because of a bogus innings limit, costing them a playoff birth.

I understand the reasoning behind babying Strasburg, but I just have a hard time believing it. Babying him will do nothing – just look at Joba Chamberlain.

The Nationals need a Ferris Bueller in their life, or else a special season will be spoiled in the nation’s capitol.

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