Strasburg Decision an Unfortunate Irony for Rizzo

Bryan Albin
Associate Sports Director

Allow me to preface this article with one nugget of information; I am a diehard fan of the Washington Nationals. In 2001, as a 10-year-old aspiring socialist (please don’t tell Glenn Beck), I switched my baseball allegiance from the storied, financially-endowed New York Yankees to the ownerless Montreal Expos. The same franchise that was playing several home series a year in Puerto Rico. The same franchise that played its other home games in an Olympic Stadium with a retractable roof that didn’t always retract. The same franchise that has only had one legitimate shot at the postseason since 1994 (when its first place run was ended by the strike), leading them to trade away Cliff Lee, Brandon Phillips and Grady Sizemore for a two-month rental of Bartolo Colon. Therefore, before thinking I’m just another journalist writing about the impending shutdown of Stephen Strasburg, let me warn you, I’m a completely biased fan. I’m a fan being told that my team’s ace isn’t going to pitch in what appears to be an inevitable trip to the postseason, its first trip to the postseason since 1981, out of fear of potential injury, not an actual injury.

Nationals General Manager Mike Rizzo’s decision to shut Strasburg down will be unprecedented. Just about every Washington baseball fan will likely be headed to the first playoff games of their lifetimes in October (the district hasn’t had a playoff team since 1933), yet the team’s most important player will be involuntarily sitting them out and (knock on wood) he will be healthy at the time. It will be the most talked about, critiqued and even ridiculed decision that a baseball GM has made. Instead of going for the championship now, Rizzo will shut Strasburg down with the hope it might help him avoid injury in the future. There’s no way to know if this strategy will keep him healthy in the future. There is only the knowledge that the Nationals playoff rotation without Strasburg will not be as good as one with him.

This innings limit has been tough to accept. It will be even harder to stomach the first time John Lannan pitches in September in Strasburg’s spot in the rotation. It’s a blow to know I’ve waited for 11 dreadful seasons to see the Nationals make the postseason, and now Rizzo will sit one of the best pitchers in baseball throughout the playoffs as a precaution.

Yet, the person I feel worst for is not myself. It’s not fellow Nationals fans. It’s not Strasburg, even though his dream of pitching in the postseason is going to be postponed at least one more year. It’s not the Mark DeRosa’s and Adam LaRoche’s who are probably in their last year with the Nats, making this perhaps their best chance at getting a ring. It’s Rizzo, the man sitting Strasburg, the man who claims this decision as his and his alone.

While baseball experts and fans bicker back and forth about whether or not shutting Strasburg down is smart, or if Rizzo at least could have managed the innings limit better, it seems people are taking for granted the astonishing fact that the Nationals are sitting at 73-45 entering Friday’s game against the Mets. Ryan Zimmerman, Jayson Werth, Michael Morse, Ian Desmond and Wilson Ramos and Drew Storen have all seen the DL for extended periods of time. The Nats have had injuries to four catchers and they sit at 73-45. Does anyone even remember the fact that the franchise has averaged 70 wins a year since moving to Washington? Sure, most people thought Washington would improve from last year’s 80-81 mark, but did anyone expect them to have baseball’s best record on August 17th? I think not.

How did the Nationals get from a 59-103 team in 2009 to where they are right now? Behind the shrewd decision making of Mike Rizzo. Rizzo became interim GM in DC after Jim Bowden resigned in March of 2009. It was Rizzo who drafted Stephen Strasburg , which was a no-brainer. However, he was able to get him signed, which many thought would be difficult due to the money being commanded by Scott Boras. It was Rizzo who traded journeyman outfielder Ryan Langerhans to Seattle for a minor league infielder by the name of Michael Morse. Morse hit 31 home runs filling in for Adam LaRoche last season and continues to be a .300 power hitter. LaRoche was brought in to replace Adam Dunn when Rizzo refused to give Dunn a four year deal. LaRoche and Dunn have had similar two year stretches with LaRoche coming at a much more affordable price. It was Rizzo who drafted Bryce Harper in 2010, again getting him signed before the deadline. In 2010, Rizzo called for minor league shortstop Danny Espinoza to get ample playing time at second base in a September callup, putting him next to young shortstop Ian Desmond, getting the present double-play combination an early start. When Desmond struggled in 2011, Nationals fans called for Rizzo to trade him, with B.J. Upton’s name being rumored as a possible prize in a trade. Rizzo held on to Desmond who was an All-Star this year. His signing of Jayson Werth to a seven year, $126 million deal was laughed at, yet it never appeared he expected Werth’s numbers to live up to the contract. Instead, it appeared to serve the purpose of warning baseball that Washington was coming, and they were willing to pay for talent willing to jump on the bandwagon.

Yet the deal that probably put the Nats over the top this year was the offseason trade Rizzo orchestrated to score Gio Gonzalez from Oakland. Rizzo had to give away four strong prospects, including Tommy Milone, to get Gio, but it was a luxury afforded to Rizzo after several successful drafts. Rizzo immediately inked Gonzalez to a five-year extension before he threw a pitch for the Nats. Gonzalez has responded with 15 wins and an that’s hovered around 3.00. Rizzo also brought in Edwin Jackson to add depth to baseball’s best rotation.

Instead of panicking at this year’s trade deadline and trading away the farm system for a rental impact player, Rizzo sat tight. He then found a way to make a trade through waivers for Oakland catcher Kurt Suzuki for essentially nothing. Suzuki is now the Nats starting catcher over Jesus Flores and will likely platoon with Ramos when he returns from injury in 2013.

Therefore, the situation Rizzo has put himself is an irony not quite of Shakesperean proportions, but pretty darn close. He probably made the decision that Strasburg would pitch 160 or so innings in 2011, around the same time Jordan Zimmermann was pitching his limit-shortened season with great success. Like most people in baseball, Rizzo probably targeted 2013 as the year the Nats would ascend to the top tier of baseball. Yet, his masterful job of reconstructing a failing ballclub has them contending earlier than expected. Now, an innings limit that likely wasn’t expected to keep Strasburg out of a postseason run will. Instead of being recognized for his incredible accomplishment, Rizzo will go down as the bald guy who shut down his best pitcher in the midst of a pennant race.

It’s really quite a shame that it is the Strasburg decision that likely will define Rizzo’s career. Instead of appreciating that Rizzo is about to bring playoff baseball back to the district for the first time in 80 years, people are yelling about the innings limit. It appears that unless the Nats win the World Series this year without Strasburg, there is no vindication in sight for Rizzo. Even with a title in 2013, the knowledge that 2012 could have happened too will linger.

But I’m ok with it. In fact I admire Rizzo for what he is doing. In a “me-first” business often mistaken as a “team-first” business, Rizzo is making a decision with the sole intention of protecting the health of one of his players. Does Rizzo reap the benefits if Strasburg is healthy for the next 10 years? Yes. But if he overworked Strasburg to a World Series title this year would he be immortalized? Absolutely. Therefore, I can’t fault Rizzo for being protective of Strasburg. Furthermore, when I came to GW, I hoped that I’d get to go to a playoff game in Nationals Park before I graduated. Rizzo’s work is about to make that hope a reality. He’s been right an extraordinary amount of time over the last four years. So right that he’s earned the right to be wrong, if he even is wrong.

Posted on August 17, 2012, in Bryan Albin, Opinions, The Pros and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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