The Stephen Strasburg Conundrum

AP Photo/Richard Lipski

The Washington Nationals have a brand-new young pitcher in Stephen Strasburg with whom they can build a solid pitching staff around for the next decade or more.

Strasburg has a brand-new elbow ligament after a Tommy John surgery sidelined him for the last year.

So you can see why it is so crucial that the Nationals ease him back into the rotation and don’t push him too hard in this all-important first year back. But what will they do if they’re in a playoff race?

There’s a very fine line between pushing a young arm to the brink of his potential and overdoing it. The magic number that has been circulating for Strasburg’s season is 160 innings, but Nationals general manager Mike Rizzo said that number was made up by the media and is not really going to be the cut-off point.

That’s good for Washington, because Strasburg is already at 38 innings pitched, and we’re not even a quarter of the way through the season.

But it does bring up an interesting debate — assuming the Nats remain in the hunt for a playoff spot, or even an NL East title, how much is too much to gamble on one season? If this franchise is on their way up and better days are ahead, getting into the postseason this year isn’t as important as a healthy Strasburg will be for the rest of his contract (and possibly beyond).

There’s been a connection between Strasburg’s success and the prosperity of the Nationals in the first month and a half of the season. Strasburg’s ERA sits at 1.66 through six starts, second-best among starters. He also has six quality starts — best on the team.

Maintaining a .621 winning percentage and first place in the division is very important to the fans, and it might seem like this season is the most important yet (because it looks like this will be the best Washington team since they moved from Montreal), but if you’re Rizzo or anyone else from the front office, patience is a very important virtue when dealing with Strasburg.

Washington’s ace is going to be very good as long as the grown-ups handle him with care. It isn’t time to take the kid gloves off yet, even if that means the Nationals don’t reach their ultimate goal this year.

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