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Thursday, April 12, 2012
Strasburg will need, and get, help

By Christina Kahrl



At first blush, Stephen Strasburg’s overpowering start for the Washington Nationals might seem like good news for a club trying to get itself taken every bit as seriously as the Miami Marlins in the National League East’s “Division of Death” this season. But two outstanding starts into the season, Strasburg’s work brings up a couple of interesting things about this Nats club that bear watching as we head deeper into the 2012 season.

First, there’s the question of his workload. In the broad strokes, worrying about this now would definitely qualify as a case of too much, too soon. Even if Strasburg is limited to starting in a five-man rotation, in which nobody’s turn gets skipped because of scheduled days off, his total starts and innings are going to pile up. Even if Strasburg gets the odd extra day of rest between turns, he’s going to have around 17 starts by the All-Star break. As a 23-year-old. Coming back from elbow surgery. With the second half to look forward to. If he fends off a (perhaps unwanted) All-Star Game invite, he’d be on turn to lead off the rotation in the second half, same as the first.

That might not seem like a big deal. Davey Johnson probably isn’t going to overwork his young stud starter in individual ballgames, after all. But as dominating as Strasburg was Wednesday against the New York Mets, he still racked up 108 pitches against 24 batters in just six innings. Eighteen pitches facing just four guys per inning? That’s life when you’re striking people out, and that’s going to get you run out of games early, even when you’re going well.

But the real problem about the ideal of watching the kid’s workload and giving all due care to the logistical tedium of managing top talent carefully is where it might run up against the Nats’ bid for contention. That might sound silly to talk about in April, but various projection tools have the Nationals winning 80 to 82 games, and perhaps nobody in the NL East reaches 90. That makes the Nats a contender, on paper or in projections, admittedly, but a team that will be in the running.

Now, what does that mean for how they manage their best starter’s workload down the stretch? Is a buzzer going to go off when Strasburg makes his 24th start at the end of August, and general manager Mike Rizzo rings up Davey in the dugout and says, “Bad news, skip, the kid’s got just two starts left this year”? An incredulous Johnson might look at the standings and see that his team’s just four out and wonder what the point of the first five months was if you have to pull up and watch the Braves or Phillies or Marlins race on ahead.

That becomes even more difficult to swallow with the new two-wild-card setup for the postseason -- if you’re the Nats, and you might squeak into a one-game playoff to move into the NL Division Series, wouldn’t you feel pretty confident about your chances if you’ve got Strasburg in the fold?

Happily for the Nats, Johnson has a roster set up with more than a few compensations to deal with a young ace who’s going to have to be handled carefully early in the season, so maybe the issue becomes academic. First, you can skip worrying about who’s getting saves for the Nats, whether it’s Drew Storen or Brad Lidge at whatever point of the season. The real relief the Nats can look forward to comes from the relative no-names who will be pitching in the sixth, seventh and eighth innings, starting with Tyler Clippard -- the NL’s most valuable non-Braves reliever last year, according to WAR -- and Henry Rodriguez's triple-digit gas, and Craig Stammen's ground-pounding sinker. That’s the kind of talent that will keep hard-hit balls from happening, usually with strikeouts. They won’t notch saves, but they’ll allow Johnson to hook Strasburg earlier than a previous generation’s skipper might have, and that might help keep the kid in the mix to the very end of the season.

Second, Johnson’s an old hand at getting the best from his lineups, to the point that he’ll eke out runs by cheating on defense. Witness Wednesday’s lineup behind Strasburg: With lefty Johan Santana on the mound, it becomes relatively affordable to put the towering Jayson Werth out in center field. Why? Because Strasburg generates so many outs at home plate that Johnson can risk a few adequate (or worse) defenders on the field. Against the Mets, Strasburg got half of his outs at home with those nine K's, got three ground-ball outs, and got a fly-ball out per inning.

There’s nothing very newfangled about this: Back in the 1980s, Johnson was willing to play sluggers such as Howard Johnson or a young Kevin Mitchell at shortstop when he had an extreme fly-ball/strikeout pitcher such as Sid Fernandez on the mound. And with more strikeouts happening today than ever, it makes even more sense now.

So maybe that’s the formula that gets Strasburg deep into the season: Better run support thanks to tailored lineups, a bullpen that can cover three or four frames per game, and not just pitch counts. If the Nats stay in this thing the way you could think they might, we’ll see what they decide about Strasburg’s workload then.

PHOTO OF THE DAY
Ichiro Suzuki
Ichiro might be getting up there, but he can still get on his horse and ride.
Christina Kahrl covers baseball for ESPN.com. You can follow her on Twitter.