Nationals Deny Fans Playoff Glory With Strasburg Decision
Published: Friday, September 14, 2012
Updated: Friday, September 14, 2012 00:09
Washington Nationals’ manager Davey Johnson has let down fans of his club — as well as the members of his team — with his decision last Saturday to bench ace Stephen Strasburg for the remainder of a season that, up to now, has been the young franchise’s most successful.
Strasburg has been nothing short of dominant this season with a 15-6 record and an ERA of only 3.16, leading Washington to a commanding division lead in the highly competitive National League East. Advanced statistics show that he is even better than his ERA and record suggest, ranking in the top 10 in baseball in many categories.
In response to critics, Johnson says the shutdown was planned in an attempt to limit Strasburg’s chance of another injury after the star starter’s Tommy John surgery in 2010. After all, the Nationals’ future does hinge on the San Diego State product’s right arm, one the club used the top overall pick in the 2009 draft to acquire.
Considering risk alone, the Strasburg shutdown is logical. But Strasburg himself said it best this week when he told The Washington Post, “You don’t grow up dreaming about playing in the big leagues to get shut down when the games start to matter.”
For the Nationals’ fans and players, Strasburg’s quote is spot on.
For the two million people who have paid to attend one of Washington’s games so far this year, shutting down the franchise’s star pitcher before the games start to matter is unacceptable. With the best record in baseball, the Nationals have created for themselves an unnecessary handicap.
I have spent my whole life cheering for a team — the Cincinnati Reds — that has failed to win a World Series thus far in my lifetime. Knowing the pain of that experience, I would be enraged if I were a Nationals’ fan who knew the club was sacrificing a shot at the World Series.
The relative risk of throwing Strasburg for another month seems trivial compared to the glory and enthusiasm that would accompany hanging a banner reading “2012 World Champions” in Nationals Park.
Thanks to the National League’s win in the All-Star game, the Nats will enter the postseason not only with a tremendous record but also with a potential home-field advantage in the World Series. Washington, with only the 20th-highest payroll in the majors and glaring holes at some positions, seems to have caught lightning in a bottle.
Teams with small payrolls struggle to recreate success. In fact, the only team below the Nationals in payroll that has still found consistent recent success is the Tampa Bay Rays — a team whose financial strategies have been chronicled by baseball writer Jonah Keri in his book “The Extra 2%.”
Supporters of Johnson’s decision have pointed to the risk of injury that Strasburg would face should he go beyond his innings limit. Other managers, however, have figured out ways to stretch young pitchers longer into the season. In Chicago, for example, the White Sox have increased the rests between starter Chris Sale’s starts to ensure he is not overworked this season and is available for the postseason.
But the biggest weakness in Johnson’s argument is the assumption that somehow a healthy Strasburg would be more meaningful in the future than he is now. With the Phillies reloading, the Mets mired in mediocrity and the Marlins failing to gel as a team, this year’s campaign is Washington’s best chance to win the NL East.
Based on the track record of the division, it would be naive to think the window of opportunity for the squad will remain open much longer.
For a team that hasn’t had a winning record since moving to the nation’s capital, this postseason could create a generation of lifelong fans. Instead of sending Strasburg to the mound in the first game of the playoffs, though, the Nationals will send a quality starter that nonetheless fails to match the intimidation factor of their ace.
In that attempt to win their first World Series, Washington is willingly disarming, giving up one of their best weapons for the sake of a future that is anything but guaranteed.
When the team is eliminated in the first round, its fans will be able to direct the blame to Davey Johnson and tell their kids — who may not even grow up as Nationals fans — about the 2012 World Series that almost was.
Corey Blaine is a senior in the McDonough School of Business. THE BLEACHER SEATS appears every Friday.