- David Schoenfield, SweetSpot blogger
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Colleague Jim Bowden has a piece today about five managers on the hot seat and mentions Davey Johnson, not so much because his job is in jeopardy (the Nationals are 10-3) but because he'll eventually have to deal with the possible innings limitation placed on Stephen Strasburg.
As Jim writes, Nationals general manager Mike Rizzo has hinted that Strasburg will be held to 160 to 180 innings this year, even if the club is in a pennant race or reaches the playoffs. Furthermore, he won't skip starts or have Strasburg's pitch counts limited (beyond normal levels) during games. That leaves a likelihood that Strasburg will be shut down in early September. If he averages just six innings over 28 starts, that's 168 innings.
What would you do, knowing Strasburg is in his first full season back from Tommy John surgery and his long-term value to the franchise? Consider:
This is a franchise that has been terrible since moving to Washington, never finishing over .500 in seven seasons. Attendance has fallen from 2.73 million in 2005 to 1.94 million in 2011. A playoff run -- and postseason appearance -- would obviously be a huge boost to not only 2012 attendance but future years as well (the year-after effect).
You play to win now. Could you really sit your best starter if you make the postseason? Sure, the Nationals might have a bright future with all their young talent, but no future is guaranteed.
What are the ethical obligation the Nationals have to ensure Strasburg's long-term health?
Is there even any guarantee that Strasburg will have better health down the road if he pitches fewer innings this season?
A similar example I can think of is Kerry Wood's rookie season with the Cubs in 1998. Wood had pitched 166.1 innings with the Cubs (and five more in Triple-A), although things were a little different then and he ran up some big pitch counts -- eight starts of 120-plus pitches. After throwing 133 pitches in a 16-strikeout performance against the Reds on Aug. 26 and then 116 five days later, the Cubs shut down Wood the rest of the regular season because of a sore elbow.
They made the playoffs anyway, defeating the Giants in a one-game tiebreaker to win the wild card. Despite losing the first two games of the Division Series to the Braves, manager Jim Riggleman started Wood in Game 3. He pitched five innings, threw 97 pitches and left trailing 1-0. The following spring, the elbow went.
Wood doesn't blame Riggleman. "My elbow was going to go," Wood told the Washington Post in 2010. "If it didn't go with [Riggleman] it would've gone with someone else. It was the way I was throwing, the stuff I had, the torque I was generating. It was a matter of time."
Riggleman was Strasburg's first manager in the major leagues. He answered Kerry Wood questions for years. "If I had it to do over, I would do it differently," he told the Post. "And we probably wouldn't have gotten to the playoffs. If I had known what was going to happen, I wouldn't have pitched him that much, period. But I would have caught a lot of grief. I caught a lot of grief as it was. We lost a lot of games where [Wood] came out after five or six innings. I was getting comments like, 'C'mon, Riggs, leave him in.'"
The bigger issue, of course, is why the Cubs brought Wood back to start a playoff game when a comeback would have been unlikely. (They had to win three in a row against the mighty Braves.) But you can see why the heat will be on Davey Johnson: Use Strasburg and you might make the playoffs or maybe even win the World Series; don't use him and the 2012 Washington Nationals may just be a memory in the record books.
What do you do?
Follow David Schoenfield on Twitter @dschoenfield.