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Tuesday, August 21, 2012
Choices that could have a real impact

By Doug Glanville
ESPN.com

When I was released by the New York Yankees at the end of spring training in 2005, I was just about to enter my 15th season as a professional. At that point, I had been a member of a team that reached the postseason only one time. By then, I had long understood that making the playoffs is pure gold, that it could be a once-in-a-lifetime experience.

There has been much discussion about Stephen Strasburg and the hard line in the sand for his pitch counts and inning limit. As a competitor, he doesn't want to hear it, he just wants the ball. But it appears that the Washington Nationals are serious about taking that ball out of his hand. What do his teammates think about this?

Clearly, every Nationals player must have bought into something. Bought into a team concept and its leadership that has allowed them to thrive this season. Even players who are senior enough to know that this run could be the only run they ever experience went all-in with "Natitude."

Still, veteran players who know the rarity of playing on a golden team must feel uneasy. They are probably old enough to have played in the "rub some dirt on it" era, when pitch counts were an insult and pitching with a frayed ligament was a rite of passage. You didn't shut your ace down, especially when he isn't even hurt yet. And Strasburg is a series-changer. He is the pitcher who reverses momentum in a playoff series. He is the arm who can take the hottest hitting team in the league and make them look unprofessional. He is that good, and to win a World Series a team usually needs to have a difference-maker in its rotation.

Sure, the Nationals have a fantastic staff. Jordan Zimmermann has not only come into his own this season, but he's dominated and done so coming off of Tommy John surgery, too. But Strasburg has that extra something about him.

Yet, the Nationals appear as if they will go without their ace at some point soon, playoffs included. And that is like walking into a knife fight with a butter knife while keeping a butcher knife locked at home in your safe.

[Melky] Cabrera made a choice, and the [Washington] Nationals will soon make a choice. Both choices are taking the best performing players off of the field without anyone being placed on the disabled list. And first and foremost, their teammates just saw their chances of winning a World Series get reduced without a chance to do anything about it.

I can appreciate what the Nationals are trying to do, as can the players who may have felt that an organization didn't care about their health at one point or another during their careers. The Nats are making a decision to reset a culture and to play it conservatively in order to have Strasburg for a decade, not for the next nine innings. They know the constant questions brought up about the 2003 Chicago Cubs' one-two punch of aces in Mark Prior and Kerry Wood. Both battled a career of arm injuries, both were young guns with a long future of dominance. Prior had a career riddled with injuries and missed seasons and Wood struggled to stay healthy for a complete season from start to finish. But even with that information, it is unchartered water to pre-empt an injury and it may put their organization in water that may sink their ship. Any player on that team must be torn knowing that they are tying one arm behind their back to take on the best teams out there.

Even so, it may be a better way to lose a key player than how the San Francisco Giants lost Melky Cabrera. He tested positive for a banned substance, and his violation will cost him 50 games. That will be enough time for the Giants to not have Cabrera for the remainder of the regular season, and then some. If I were a teammate of Cabrera, I would be furious. By no longer having Cabrera, it takes away from the Giants' great run this year. It also weakens their offense and it happens at a time when the Los Angeles Dodgers may be figuring out how good they really can be.

In Cabrera's case, he took the risk-reward test and rolled the dice, apparently running as a fugitive from his own talent. Maybe on a personal level, he will lose out on his next big contract, but lost in the shuffle are the other Giants. His teammates have to now play on for the rest of the regular season without him.

Cabrera made a choice, and the Nationals will soon make a choice. Both choices are taking the best performing players off of the field without anyone being placed on the disabled list. And first and foremost, their teammates just saw their chances of winning a World Series get reduced without a chance to do anything about it.

Usually, from the end of the trade deadline to this time of the season, players are on pins and needles. Trades still lurk, call-ups wait, waiver wires light up. You don't know if you are going to get shipped out. You don't know if the team will make the big move you believe the team needs to go to the next level (or if you are the piece they move to get it). So you sit tight, waiting for change to come.

But typically, you expect change to be made by adding possibility to your team. An arm, a right-handed bat, a closer. Even in a swap, you are adding a piece. Washington and San Francisco are losing talented players in a disappearing act, no matter how premeditated. Poof, just like that, you are shorthanded. No refund, no exchange.

Players see guys come and go. Key players drop with injuries at a critical time. It happens. These two examples make those left behind feel powerless in an environment and a time that you know may never come again. What will allow these teams to compete without missing a beat is their leadership stepping in and shifting the confidence discussion to the rest of the team. Point out the strength in the rest of the talent in their locker room. Decisions were made and penalties were levied that will not be changed, so now, this is where greatness comes out of nowhere. At this point, that is what it will have to be in order to win. It just will have to happen minus a major part of why they currently are where they are in the first place.