Stephen Strasburg will not make it all the way through this season. That isn't news to anybody, thanks to the publicity that Mike Rizzo's innings cap has gotten this year.
For months, there has been debate about whether to actually shut Strasburg down when the time comes. The argument against it usually goes as follows: “If the Nationals make the NLCS and possibly World Series, are they really going to keep one of the cornerstones of their franchise out of that situation?”
In Pawtucket, R.I., you will find the Red Sox Triple-A affiliate, known locally as the PawSox. One would imagine that being a good pitcher for the PawSox at this point would be a quick route to the majors, given the shambles that the Boston pitching staff is in at the moment. However, no matter how bad things have gotten, nobody has turned to Pawtucket and said, “Get me Mark Prior.”
If the name Mark Prior isn't too familiar, think back to the 2003 Chicago Cubs. In the early 2000s, the Cubs had a stable of starting pitchers that seemed to pencil them in as playoff contenders for years to come. Kerry Wood, Mark Prior and Carlos Zambrano were going to be the backbone of a resurgent organization.
Of course, that ended after 2003. Injuries limited Wood and Prior after that, eventually sending Wood to the bullpen (and, in 2012, retirement) and Mark Prior out of Chicago following the 2007 season and out of Major League Baseball entirely by 2009. Now, a pitcher who was once a top draft pick and a phenom is fighting his way through the minors. Admirable, but as of yet, Prior still can't land a spot start with an injury-and-poor-performance-riddled Boston rotation.
This cost did not bring high reward to the north side of Chicago. This is a story everybody knows by now. Prior was on the mound. Moises Alou was unable to catch a foul ball that had gone into the stands. Alex Gonzalez booted a tailor-made double play. Wrigley Field became the closest thing real life has seen to a zombie film. Dusty Baker went to Cincinnati. Carlos Zambrano went crazy.
The Cubs have never been the same.
Time to rephrase the Strasburg question: Knowing what happened to the 2003 Chicago Cubs, does it make sense to send Stephen Strasburg out in an effort to win now with a young team that could, under the right circumstances, win a lot?
Before the hypothetical readers answer that, consider that Strasburg is not the typical “can't miss” young pitcher. Most of those guys had been the best pitcher in their area since they were about 10 years old. Strasburg unlocked his potential during his time at San Diego State.
At SDSU, his mechanics were developed and his game was refined, a hint that Strasburg needs coaching to succeed. This is not a bad thing, but it does mean that baseball decisions involving Stephen Strasburg require more people than just Strasburg to address.
The next part of the anti-shutdown argument involves opportunity. The Nationals potentially have an opportunity to play in—and possibly win—the World Series. These opportunities do not come along very often and may not come around again. Given that Washington has not seen postseason baseball for generations, the chance to become the most beloved team in that big city cannot be passed up.
Again, think back to the Cubs. After the 2003 season, people expected Chicago to be around for a long time. Young pitchers and all the money a team could need seemed to indicate more chances to win it, more chances to contend for that elusive title. “The future” doesn't mean anything when the people expected to take you there can't actually do it.
Baseball people often cite Dusty Baker's mismanagement of the Cubs' pitching staff as their eventual downfall. Wood and Prior were workhorses in 2003, given the ball at every opportunity and expected to carry their team to glory. After 2003, neither pitcher was quite the same.
At what point does that become a fair trade? For Nationals fans, would it be “worth” celebrating one World Series if it meant that Strasburg would be non-tendered by 2016 and out of the league by 2018? Further, what does one championship do for a team?
The Diamondbacks and Marlins might advise against going “all in” to win one title in the hopes that it changes the baseball scene around a city. For that matter, the 2005 World Series did not transform the Chicago White Sox into the big market powerhouse one would expect in a team from a city like Chicago.
(Now, since the Cubs are the other example, it is worthy of mention that one title would transform the Cubs, but obviously that is a special circumstance that applies to a long-established baseball fanbase.)
One might suggest that Washington's other sports teams have helped create a sense of urgency. The Wizards are an NBA non-factor, the Redskins have been a roller coaster under Dan Snyder, and the Capitals have yet to back up their spectacular regular-season flair with postseason success. The Nats might not “need” a title, but D.C. certainly could use one.
The thing is, D.C. has been here before with the aforementioned Caps. Sure, our nation's capital would like Ovechkin and company to bring home the Stanley Cup, but there is a whispered agreement there. “Win or lose, just don't stop being so fun.”
Suppose there was a mad scientist who could transplant memories into people's heads so that they seemed perfectly real. Now suppose that person approached a Caps fan and said “I will give you the memory of having won the Stanley Cup in 2010 instead of the Chicago Blackhawks. But, in exchange for this, the Capitals will no longer have Alex Ovechkin on their team.” That fan might choose one title over years of entertainment, but many fans would not.
Consider that when considering Strasburg. The Nationals are among baseball's most entertaining teams. Should baseball fans not praise Mike Rizzo for trying to ensure that they will remain entertaining into at least 2013? Why would anybody be upset that somebody is trying to guarantee that Jordan Zimmermann, Stephen Strasburg and Bryce Harper will all be back and better than ever next year?