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Are the Nationals right? I'm not sure, but here's what I am sure of

By Danny Knobler | Baseball Insider

It's not our fault.

Not mine. Not yours. Not Scott Miller's.

Stephen Strasburg isn't being shut down because of "media hype." He's not being shut down because I keep talking about it, or you keep talking about it, or because Scott keeps talking about it.

He's being shut down because the Nationals came to the conclusion -- long ago -- that limiting Strasburg's innings this year is best for the player and best for the franchise.

That's it. And that's fine.

Are they right? I've spent hours thinking about it, hours talking about it, and I'm still not sure they are. But I'm still not sure they're not.

Here's what I am sure of:

-- The idea that the Strasburg decision has gotten too much attention is absolutely ridiculous. We're talking about it for a simple reason: It's completely unprecedented.

Yes, teams have been shutting down young pitchers early for several years. Other teams are doing it this year.

But never before has a first-place team voluntarily shut down its best pitcher. Never.

If you don't get why that's a big deal, I'm not sure I can help you.

-- The idea that the Nationals will be "fine" without Strasburg in the rotation depends on your definition of "fine."

Could they win without him? Absolutely they could, because a playoff rotation of Gio Gonzalez, Jordan Zimmermann, Edwin Jackson and Ross Detwiler will match up well.

They could win without him, just as the Reds kept winning when their best player (Joey Votto) went on the disabled list.

But just as the Reds have a far better chance of winning the World Series with Votto in the lineup than they'd have without him, the Nationals have a better chance with their best pitcher pitching than they will with him on the sideline.

You can throw numbers out there to try to prove that Strasburg isn't their best pitcher, just as you can use numbers to say that the Reds' record without Votto was better than the record with him.

Forget it. Ask the Nationals players and coaches who their best pitcher is. When they're honest, they tell you. And in all fairness to Gio Gonzalez, who may well win the Cy Young, Stephen Strasburg is their top pitcher.

-- The idea that the Nationals "never expected to be in the race" is equally ridiculous.

In February, manager Davey Johnson said "they can fire me" if the Nationals miss the playoffs.

Perhaps they didn't expect to have the best record in the National League. But they expected these September games to matter, and they expected to pull the plug on Strasburg while the games still mattered.

-- Don't tell me that it's all right because the Strasburg and the Nationals will definitely be back with more chances to win. It doesn't work that way.

If I had to guess, they will be. But if I'd have had to guess after 2009, I'd have said that the Phillies would get back to the World Series.

Three years later, they haven't.

Players get hurt. Players underperform. Plans fall apart. The best teams often lose.

This might not be the only chance Strasburg and the Nationals get. But it might end up being the best chance.

-- Don't tell me that the Nationals' decision will be proven right if Strasburg goes on to have a long and successful career (or if they win the World Series next month without him).

The sad fact is that we'll never be able to say that they were right -- or that they were wrong.

We'll never know whether he could have pitched 200 innings this year and stayed healthy, just as we can't know now that after throwing 159 1/3 innings this year he's not going to get hurt.

If there was a magic formula to keeping pitchers healthy, we wouldn't have so many pitchers hurt every year. You can only go with the best available evidence -- which is exactly what the Nationals believe they have done.

-- Yes, it's fair to ask whether Johnson should have allocated Strasburg's innings differently. The Nationals could have eased him into the season, rather than starting him on opening day. They could have skipped a start or two. They could have shut him down for a couple of weeks at midseason (as would have happened had Strasburg pulled a muscle and had to go on the disabled list).

They didn't, and it's not because they didn't think of it. As Davey said in April, "I've listened to all the suggestions -- and rejected all of them."

Believe me, the Nationals spent more time on this issue than I did or you did or anyone else did.

They knew all the alternatives. They just rejected the other ones.

Are they right?

Again, I'm not sure. I don't have all the information they have, and I also don't have responsibility of protecting a very valuable 24-year-old right arm.

It's easy to sit here and say that they're wrong. It's easy to see that Strasburg wants to keep pitching.

It was also easy, from Davey Johnson's seat in the dugout, to see from watching Strasburg struggle Friday night that it made little sense to give his talented right-hander one final start.

Davey's wrong when he puts this on "media hype." The Nationals created this issue by doing something that's unprecedented -- voluntarily shutting down their best pitcher as they head to the playoffs.

That doesn't mean they're wrong.

 
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