When he was drafted in 2009, Stephen Strasburg was seen as the new beginning for the Washington Nationals. No longer would fans endure the sloppy junkball from the likes of Livan Hernandez, they would have an ace of their own, a stopper. Strasburg, as we know, dominated the minors before being called up in 2010 and dominating until he tore his UCL and required what is now baseball’s right of passage – otherwise known as Tommy John Surgery. Strasburg missed all of 2011, save for the final month, and was said to return in 2012 under an organization imposed innings limit.
As we now know, 2012 was a year nobody, not even Washington brass, saw coming, as Washington paced the National League, won the division and 98 games, before a disappointing playoff defeat. Of course, Strasburg was not around in the playoffs, and many claim that if Strasburg had started, Washington would have won the World Series. This claim is obviously both heinous and easy to make in hindsight since Strasburg’s playoff rotation replacement, Ross Detwiler, pitched the best out of every other starter Washington used.
As we also know, 2013 was supposed to be the next step in Washington’s development. The playoff experience combined with some key roster additions in the form of Denard Span, the rangy and speedy leadoff hitter Washington was missing in 2012 and has coveted for a long time, and Rafael Soriano, a seasoned closer whose ability to close in the Bronx made closing in D.C. seem like a cakewalk. Combine this with a Strasburg with the muzzle off, and you get a team destined for 100 plus wins, a second straight NL East title, and perhaps even a World Series berth.
As we now, sadly, know, none of that went as planned for Washington, as they sit at 67-65, seven games back of the second wild card and well behind in the NL East race. Strasburg has also seen his own struggles, as he is 6-9 with a 2.96 ERA as he prepares to eclipse his maximum career innings pitched in his next start, which may come Sunday after pitching only two innings last night. Wins and losses for a pitcher matter, though not as much as a team’s record in games started by Strasburg. Washington is now 11-15 in games started by Strasburg, though he has been plagued by poor defense and minimal run support.
What we have also seen is how extreme Washington’s protection of Strasburg can be, as we have seen multiple times this season where Strasburg will do nothing more than bend over on the mound, which then spurs a visit from pitching coach Steve McCatty and the trainers, regardless of if Strasburg is just stretching or not. Manager Davey Johnson has more than once affectionately called McCatty a “mother hen” when one of these incidents occurs, though Strasburg has more pointed statements to make when asked about this. An event like this occurred last night, when Strasburg reportedly suffered a stiff back during the over an hour rain delay. When asked about this, Strasburg simply stated “I’m not 20 anymore.”
So, is Washington’s continued protection, perhaps even coddling, of Strasburg hurting their chances of signing him long term?
Don’t be surprised if it does. Strasburg, since being drafted and having surgery, has been somewhat of an outcast on his own team, always getting more notoriety than his teammates and more scrutiny as well. That wears on a player, especially one who seems to try and shy away from the spotlight like Strasburg does. Washington obviously has every right to protect their commodities in Strasburg, and they had the same limit on Jordan Zimmermann, only a year previous to Strasburg, but the continued protection, bordering on coddling, seems to be something that could push Strasburg elsewhere.
Strasburg was the one who was there first, before Bryce Harper, before Jayson Werth. If Washington does not calm itself down, he could be the first to go as well.