No one can predict how long and productive a career Stephen Strasburg will have in the major leagues. But this much is certain: If Strasburg does suffer an arm injury of any consequence, it won't be because the Washington Nationals failed to heed the warning signs.
When Strasburg shook his right arm in discomfort after throwing a changeup to Philadelphia's Domonic Brown on Saturday, the Nationals escorted him off the field, ordered up an MRI, placed him on the disabled list and sent him for a second opinion, pronto. Strasburg couldn't have been more protected if he were shrink-wrapped and encased in plastic.
Strasburg, like all young pitchers now, is working on an innings limit to ease his transition to the major leagues. That's perfectly understandable, given the Nationals' $15.1 million investment in him and his importance to the long-term health of the franchise.
"We know -- or we think we know -- that stress is ratcheted up when young pitchers have big bumps in workloads," said Mark Newman, the Yankees' senior vice president of baseball operations. "There's the obvious delicate balancing act of trying to win at the major league level, but not mortgage the future by running somebody into the ground. Those are two difficult balls to keep in the air at the same time."
Most organizations try to refrain from increasing young pitchers' workloads by more than 20 percent from one year to the next. Other clubs use an increase of 25-30 innings as a general guideline. Regardless of the rule of thumb, managers, front-office people, pitching coaches and scouts understand that all the proactive measures in the world can't ensure a pitcher's health. Some injuries are beyond a team's control.
"You can't put all these guys in a bubble, protect them, give them the Mike Marshall mechanics and teach them a screwball and keep them all healthy," said Cincinnati pitching coach Bryan Price. "As much as there are people out there who think you can, I'm of the opinion that you can't. Guys have to pitch, and some guys are going to stay healthy and some guys aren't."
The Nationals are an afterthought in the NL East, so they can afford to let Strasburg return at his own pace. Lots of other teams don't have that luxury. In this week's installment of Starting 9, we look at nine contending teams (and 11 pitchers) who are trying to strike a balance between short-term goals and long-range thinking while counting innings down the stretch.
Mat Latos, Padres
Latos pitches for a team with a former pitcher-turned-manager (Bud Black), a well-respected pitching coach (Darren Balsley) and an enlightened, new age general manager (Jed Hoyer). The Padres showed their concern for his long-term welfare when they shut him down a week into September in 2009 to cap his innings total at 142.
Nevertheless, Latos' workload last year was 66.2 percent above his output for the previous year. That landed him a spot on Sports Illustrated writer Tom Verducci's list of the 10 young pitchers most at risk of injury or a dropoff in performance in 2010. Among the other pitchers flagged for trouble by Verducci's formula: Joba Chamberlain, Homer Bailey, Josh Johnson, Rick Porcello, Felix Hernandez and Wade Davis.
Latos continues to pitch wonderfully this season, as evidenced by his 13-5 record and 2.33 ERA. But with the Padres trying to maintain a lead in the NL West, it's not easy finding him respites. In April, the Padres identified 150 innings as a reasonable target. That's since been adjusted to 150-to-180 innings, and Latos will be in line for more work if San Diego makes the playoffs.
Latos got an unexpected break in July when he pulled a muscle while stifling a sneeze and went on the disabled list. He'll take the mound against the Phillies on Friday at Petco Park with seven days' rest. If the Padres can lengthen out their lead over San Francisco in September, Black will continue to look for ways to lighten his load before the playoffs.
Phil Hughes, Yankees
The media obsession over Joba Chamberlain and the "Joba Rules" became such a circus, the Yankees are taking a more low-key approach to disseminating information on Hughes. Everybody knows how much money the Pirates and Marlins pocket in revenue sharing, but no one has a firm handle on how Yankees manager Joe Girardi and pitching coach Dave Eiland plan to address their young right-hander's workload in September.
"We have a plan in place and we're going to bear down on it here in the next few days," Eiland told reporters last weekend. "When Joe is ready to announce it, he'll announce it."
The Yankees skipped Hughes' turn against the Dodgers in late June and gave him an 11-day rest around the All-Star break, and they'll trim an inning here and there whenever possible. Last week Girardi pulled Hughes after six innings and 84 pitches in an 11-5 victory over Detroit.
Hughes just passed the 140-inning milepost, and the consensus is that he'll come in around 170-175 during the regular season. The task of managing Hughes' workload would be easier if he were just a complementary piece in the rotation rather than a main cog. But when Andy Pettitte is on the DL with a lingering groin injury, A.J. Burnett is sporting a 4.80 ERA, Javier Vazquez's fastball is averaging 88.7 mph, and Dustin Moseley and Ivan Nova are entrusted with helping the Yankees try to fend off Tampa Bay and Boston in the AL East, it's tough for Girardi to coddle Hughes too much.
Jaime Garcia, Cardinals
Garcia is sitting at 141 1/3 innings after throwing a total of 27 last year in his comeback from Tommy John surgery. On Sunday he threw his best game of the season, going the distance on 89 pitches in a 9-0, three-hit victory over San Francisco.
The Cardinals have no hard innings limit on Garcia, but manager Tony La Russa and pitching coach Dave Duncan are making every effort to give him extra rest between appearances; Garcia has made three starts on six days' rest in the past month. And on days when it's readily apparent that he's laboring, La Russa doesn't waste any time pulling him.
Even though the Cardinals are locked in a tight race, the burden on Garcia isn't quite as pronounced as it was a few weeks ago. Cardinals GM John Mozeliak acquired innings-eater Jake Westbrook at the trade deadline, and Kyle Lohse is back from the disabled list, so Adam Wainwright and Chris Carpenter have a little more help now.
In some ways, Garcia's elbow blowout was a blessing because of the commitment he showed in his recovery. He's a more mature, better-conditioned athlete now, and that can only help him in September and October -- should the Cardinals make the postseason.
"He took great advantage of his rehab," Mozeliak said. "He put himself in tremendous shape. So when he got to spring training, there was no doubt in my mind that he was going to be a different pitcher. In a perfect world, you don't want somebody to get hurt. But in a lot of ways, it was amazing how it worked out."
Madison Bumgarner, Giants
"He's got [guts]," a National League scout said of Bumgarner. "He pitches with his fastball and he's not afraid to challenge anybody."
That includes baseball royalty. In a 6-3 win over St. Louis on Friday, Bumgarner pumped in first-pitch fastball strikes to Albert Pujols at 95, 94 and 93 mph in their first three encounters. Bumgarner threw a 77 mph curveball for a strike to begin their fourth matchup, and Pujols eventually homered over the center-field fence.
While Bumgarner's poise and stuff are terrific, he's only three years removed from South Hudson High in Caldwell, N.C., and just turned 21. He's already surpassed his 2009 total of 141 innings, and threw 100-plus pitches in five straight outings in July. Rick Porcello, who came out in the same draft class with Bumgarner, topped 100 pitches only four times last season in Detroit. Porcello hasn't been the same pitcher this year, although lots of baseball people chalk it up to growing pains rather than overuse.
Bumgarner is a horse at 6-4, 215, and as the Giants showed with Tim Lincecum, they're not inclined to baby young pitchers. In Bumgarner's case, there's no Plan B. After the big five of Lincecum, Matt Cain, Barry Zito, Jonathan Sanchez and Bumgarner, San Francisco's best starting option is 27-year-old Eric Hacker, who has 16 wins for Triple-A Fresno. While the Giants have been hoarding outfielders, they've left themselves with little choice but to ride Bumgarner to the finish line.
C.J. Wilson, Rangers
Wilson, 29, is significantly older than anybody else on this list. But he's dealing with a completely different set of circumstances. After logging 73 2/3 innings out of the bullpen last season, he's made a successful transition to the starting rotation. He's 12-5 with a 3.02 ERA -- fifth best in the American League -- and he's allowed only eight home runs in 158 innings despite pitching half his games in one of baseball's most homer-happy venues.
Wilson, a Taoist, movie buff, auto racing enthusiast, former college screen-writing major and all-around deep thinker, has embraced the challenge of preparing four days for a start and then navigating an opposing lineup from top to bottom. From the looks of things, he seems better-suited to the rhythms of starting than relieving.
"When I got out there as a reliever, I used to be like a puppy who had to wait behind all the other dogs to get fed," Wilson told Evan Grant of The Dallas Morning News in May. "Now, I can use up all my energy on the field. I can go out there and just pitch."
How long can he hold up? The Rangers can cite several examples of pitchers who've made impressive moves from the bullpen to the rotation in recent years. St. Louis' Adam Wainwright made the jump from 75 to 202 innings in 2007. Ryan Dempster logged 66 2/3 innings as the Cubs' closer in 2007, and is on his way to his third straight 200-inning season. Derek Lowe also made the switch with Boston in the early 2000s.
The Ballpark in Arlington can be a cauldron in the summer, but the Rangers think Wilson's commitment to conditioning will help him continue to pitch effectively down the stretch. Wilson is a stickler for nutrition, adheres to a "Straight Edge" lifestyle that prohibits the consumption of alcohol or illegal drugs, and spends each winter in Huntington Beach, Calif., where he lives on the beach and stays in shape running in the sand.
"He's probably in the best shape of anybody on our staff," said Texas GM Jon Daniels.
Mike Leake, Edinson Volquez and Travis Wood, Cincinnati
Perhaps no team is doing a bigger juggling routine than the Reds, who are trying to fend off St. Louis in the National League Central while dealing with all sorts of variables in the rotation.
Volquez, only a year removed from Tommy John surgery, has had four good starts and four bad ones since his return. He's averaging a whopping 20.1 pitches per inning, and threw 20 balls and 19 strikes in San Francisco on Monday night before Dusty Baker mercifully pulled him in the first inning. The Reds better give some serious thought to how hard they want to push Volquez down the stretch.
Wood is the diametric opposite of Volquez. He's a sinker-cutter guy with a low-stress delivery, generally pitches to contact, and is averaging 14.8 pitches per inning. He's still six innings short of his total of 167 innings last season, so the Reds are comfortable with his workload.
Leake, who made the Reds' opening day roster without having spent a day in the minors, is the most intriguing case of the three. When it became apparent that he was going to obliterate his innings target, the Reds shifted him to the bullpen. He's a strike thrower with the ability to get loose in a hurry, so it's been a smooth transition.
"We threw out a general number of 170 innings in the regular season, and Mike was on pace to shatter it," Price said. "We had to take a stand and do this in August instead of September. Realistically, if we calculated this the right way, he could come back and pitch [as a starter] in late September if needed."
David Price, Rays
In May, when the Tampa Bay rotation was cutting a swath through the American League, pitching coach Jim Hickey said Price was the only Rays starter whose workload might require a little extra monitoring. That remains the case today.
James Shields is 28 years old, Matt Garza is 26, and they both have 200-inning seasons on their résumés. Jeff Niemann and Wade Davis were groomed for big workloads in the minors and both just returned from DL stints, so they're ready to go full bore down the stretch.
That leaves Price, who's thrown 157 2/3 innings and is only five short of his total for last season. On several occasions, manager Joe Maddon has taken advantage of a break in the schedule to give Price an extra day or two of rest between starts. That might help explain why Price ranks 34th among major league starters with 2,595 pitches thrown.
The AL East race is so tight that Price won't be missing any starts. He already has a Rays record 15 wins in the bag, and now he'll take a run at becoming the youngest AL Cy Young Award winner since Barry Zito in 2002.
While the Rays plan to ride Price, Garza, Shields, Niemann and Davis to the finish, they're not taking any chances with young righty Jeremy Hellickson, who's thrown 144 innings between Tampa Bay and Triple-A Durham this season. He's been dispatched to Class A Port Charlotte to acclimate himself to pitching out of the bullpen, and is about to be introduced to what St. Petersburg Times writer Marc Topkin calls the "Jeremy Rules."
Francisco Liriano, Twins
Liriano was All-Star-worthy and razor sharp with his control before the break, so it was a little disconcerting for the Twins to see his command take a sabbatical recently. He's still throwing his fastball in the 93-94 mph range. But when he walked 12 batters in a 15 1/3-inning span over three starts, the Twins determined he was going through a "dead arm" phase. They bumped him back three days, and he will return (they hope) looking fresh and rejuvenated Thursday night against Cliff Lee and the Rangers.
It's been a long road back for Liriano, who looked so dazzling in 2006 before an elbow blowout and subsequent Tommy John surgery. He bottomed out last year with a 5-13 record and 5.80 ERA, and didn't begin to flash his old form until an impressive winter ball season in his native Dominican Republic. Those 48 innings with Leones del Escogido helped Liriano get off to a great start this season, but now you have to wonder if the workload hasn't caught up to him.
"He asked to pitch winter ball, and I think it was a big thing for him both physically and emotionally," said Twins GM Bill Smith. "He came out of winter ball with a lot of confidence, and he showed up at spring training knowing that he was back.''
Kevin Slowey just went on the disabled list with a strained triceps and Carl Pavano has been getting cuffed around in August, so the Twins better hope this is just a temporary phase for Liriano. He's the one pitcher in the Minnesota rotation with swing-and-miss stuff, and the Twins need him to be in top form if they plan to make an extended run in October.
Mike Minor, Braves
Minor, the seventh pick in the 2009 draft out of Vanderbilt, slid into the Atlanta rotation when Kris Medlen went down with an elbow injury. He's shown three above-average pitches while striking out 22 batters in 18 innings in his first three appearances.
"He's come in exactly as advertised," said Atlanta GM Frank Wren. "He's the guy on Team USA two years ago that they wanted pitching the big games, and that included Strasburg and Leake and guys like that. He's got a presence that far exceeds his service time, and he's had that since the day he walked into major league camp."
Now for the "oh yeah, but" part of the equation: Minor signed in August last year, so he finished with about 125 innings between college and Class A ball. This year he's logged almost 140 innings, and the Braves plan to skip his next scheduled start Saturday against the Marlins.
If the playoffs began today, Tim Hudson, Jair Jurrjens and Tommy Hanson would be Atlanta's first three starters. They're followed by Derek Lowe, who has only 11 quality starts in 26 appearances this year, but has a ton of postseason experience and a 2.96 ERA in four starts in August. But the Braves seem determined to find a role for Minor somewhere.
"We think he has the ability to play a big part if he continues to pitch like he's pitching," Wren said.
Others of note
Daniel Bard, Boston: He's tied for sixth in the American League with 56 appearances, and manager Terry Francona is going to have to resist the temptation to pitch him in every close game down the stretch.
Gio Gonzalez, Athletics: The A's are in good shape with Trevor Cahill, Brett Anderson and Vin Mazzaro, three of their four sub-25 starters. The only Oakland starter whose workload is generating even a trace of a concern is Gonzalez, who's about to eclipse his single-season high of 159 innings.
"Knock on wood, he's never had any issues since he's been with us," said David Forst, Oakland's assistant general manager. "We'll probably keep an eye on him for the last start or two. It's really not much of an issue for us going forward for the next six or seven weeks."
Jonny Venters, Braves: Braves fans can't help noticing that Venters, who underwent Tommy John surgery in 2006 and had elbow problems again in 2008, seems to be either warming up or pitching every single night. Now that fellow lefty Eric O'Flaherty is back from the DL, Venters will have someone to share the load against left-handed hitters in August and September.