Entering Thursday's start against the Pirates, Stephen Strasburg has made six starts and pitched 38 innings. He's 2-0 with a 1.66 ERA, has the highest fastball velocity among starters in the major leagues, throws strikes and is on the short list of the best pitchers in baseball.
Of course, he's reportedly on a 160-inning limit in his first full year back from Tommy John surgery. At his current rate of 6.3 innings per start, he'll reach 160 innings in his 26th start. That means shutting him down in late August and missing his final six or seven starts.
The problem, of course, is that the Nationals are a good bet to still be in a heated NL East pennant race in late August. How do you tell your season-ticket holders and your fans that you're shutting down your best player? That you're decreasing your chances of winning? You can't do it. Isn't the goal to win? It's easy for GM Mike Rizzo to say in March or April that the club wants to limit Strasburg's workload; it's a different story if the team is a game out of first place on Sept. 15.
But it's certainly understandable why the team wants to play it as safe as possible, although I'm not sure there's evidence that pitching 160 innings is any "safer" than 180 or 200 or 220. That's another topic. For now, let's stick to the thesis that Strasburg should pitch 160 innings. Here's my idea of how to do it while still keeping him available down the stretch.
When Chien-Ming Wang returns from the DL (he made his fourth rehab start on Wednesday night), use Wang as a spot starter of sorts. The Nationals have indicated they don't want to do this, that they'd prefer to keep Strasburg pitching every fifth game. There are two options here: You could simply sub in Wang for Strasburg from time to time, say one start per month. Or you could use Wang to push Strasburg back a day or two every so often.
For example, if Strasburg pitches every fifth game, he'd be scheduled to go May 15 (Padres), May 20 (Orioles) and May 25 (Braves). If you gave Wang the May 20 start against Baltimore, you could push Strasburg back to May 21 or May 22, when the Nationals play division rival Philadelphia. Or instead of having Strasburg face the Mets on June 7, use Wang and push Strasburg back a day to face a much tougher Red Sox lineup. If done in the right fashion, you could actually exploit Strasburg to make sure he faces tougher opponents or more division games.
You need a flexible manager, but you can manipulate a six-man rotation like this fairly easily. You could still keep veterans Gio Gonzalez and Edwin Jackson pitching every fifth day, while using Wang to save innings with young arms Stephen Strasburg, Jordan Zimmermann and Ross Detwiler. The risk is that the starters wouldn't keep the same routine or have the same number of rest days between starts, but the possible reward is that your rotation would be less fatigued heading into September. And remember, Strasburg, Zimmermann and Detwiler have never come close to 180 innings, let alone 200, in a season. Strasburg isn't the only starter where innings could be an issue.
OK, maybe you don't want to jump starts around like that. Too complicated. You can still push Strasburg deeper into the season pretty easily. For example, sticking to the every-fifth-game rule, you could skip the following starts:
May 15 (Padres)
July 5 (Giants, final start before All-Star break)
Make him the fifth starter coming out of the break, meaning he doesn't start again until July 17, and then skip these starts:
Aug. 7 (Astros)
Sept. 4 (Cubs)
Sept. 21 (Brewers)
That would give him 20 more starts, on top of the six he's already made, heading into the final series of the season ... against the Phillies. If the Nats need him, they could stretch him to a 27th start. This way, they'd keep him active through September, and thanks to the long break around the All-Star Game, they'd have to "skip" him only four times.
And if the Nationals make the playoffs ... well ... you have to go for it, right?