Do You Really Think These Nats are Strasburg Alone?

The guts-’n'-glory crowd arguing against the looming Stephen Strasburg shutdown has a powerful, or at least influential ally now. And, customarily, when Chipper Jones speaks even the opposition listens.

“If I were him,” the Atlanta Braves’ Hall of Fame-in-waiting third baseman says, to Yahoo! Sports columnist Les Carpenter, “I’d be throwing a fit.”

Jones must surely be aware that if it were up to Strasburg alone, he’d be pitching until a) the Washington Nationals actually take the ball out of his hand; or, b) until his arm vapourises. That isn’t exactly a secret, in Washington or elsewhere. He’s on record as saying as much.

“I know some of those guys over there,” he said, referring to the Nats, whom the Braves were preparing to stop from sweeping them Wednesday afternoon. “They are trying to toe the party line. I know they aren’t happy their No. 1 pitcher isn’t going to be out there.” In October, that is.

Jones doesn’t think the Strasburg Plan makes sense . . .

Unless the rest of the baseball watching world thinks the Nats’ story thus far is little more than a Pixar fantasy, Jones isn’t the only one who knows they won’t necessarily be thrilled Strasburg won’t be on the postseason roster. And he isn’t the only one who thinks playing wait ’till next year, before letting Strasburg go the distance, the better to prevent his Tommy John surgically-repaired elbow from breaking, in what surgeon Lewis Yocum believes would be the prime time for a breakage following an immediately over-stressing season right after the recuperation period, is just plain wrong and more plainly shortsighted.

“Next year what if [Jordan] Zimmermann gets hurt again?” Jones said. “What if Gio Gonzalez goes down? There is a certain set of circumstances. Sometimes things aren’t the same. As those [pitchers] get older they will lose a little bit of speed on their fastballs. They will be a little more hittable. You have to strike while the iron’s hot.”

This comes from a man who won a World Series ring as a rookie, then spent just about the rest of his career chasing a second one that never came, though his Braves gave themselves more chances than most to get it. Did I mention Jones’s rookie season was put off by a year thanks to a torn ACL in spring training 1994?

Was Jones unaware that Zimmermann, too, went on a planned innings limit last year, following his own Tommy John recuperation and rehab, but Zimmermann hasn’t broken down yet in the year after?

You’d think, with Jones and others of like mind, that the only thing putting the Nats in position to just about waltz into the postseason unmolested is Stephen Strasburg, that without him in any way, shape, or form come October, the Nats are going to be dead ducks walking. The career doesn’t mean a damn thing; go for the guts and glory when you’ve got it waiting for you; screw the future, assuming there’ll be one.

Carpenter himself aids and abets his immediate subject, when not dropping a slightly veiled insult. After Jones speculated on Zimmermann and Gonzalez, “the player who expected a mountain of championships that never came, stood up. Soon he would head to the field to begin yet another workout routine in a brilliant career that came a few World Series short of unforgettable.”

That’ll be Jones standing in Cooperstown in a few years hoisting a plaque that tells you how forgettable his career’s been, including this rather remarkable finale he’s coming down the stretch of playing.

At one point, Carpenter inadvertently leaves room for Jones to sound like the fool he isn’t. Carpenter asked: Suppose the Nats bow to all the guts-’n'-glory pressure and let Strasburg go the distance, after all; then, what happens if Strasburg blows his arm in his first postseason start? “I don’t think anybody would be angry about it,” Jones is quoted as replying. “How do you think the fans would feel? Do you think they would weigh a World Series championship against a Strasburg injury?”

Let’s put that into Jones’s own earlier what-if pile. How would real fans feel if they got one World Series conquest this year, but a) Strasburg’s fresh injury takes him own indefinitely, and b) meanwhile, back in the jungle, Zimmermann and Gonzalez get hurt, not to mention c) they age practically overnight, as you’d think they stand to do if you take Jones’s earlier quote literally, and they have only that one conquest to show?

Now, let’s take a closer look at these Nats while removing Strasburg from the equation. Suppose there were no Stephen Strasburg? Do you know that, through this writing, the Nats are in the top ten in every team hitting category except for triples? Do you know that they’re number one in the league in earned run average, shutouts, and saves? Do you know that they’re second in fielding average and in the top ten in turning double plays? By the way, the Nats have outscored their opposition by 108 runs.

There’s yes-yes in his heart; for his career’s sake there should be no-no in his eyes, and his (and his team’s) brains . . .

Strasburg himself has 3.3 wins above a replacement-level player thus far; Zimmermann has 3.1, Gonzalez, 2.8. The rear end of the rotation has 4.0—Edwin Jackson has 2.1, Ross Detwiler, 1.9. The rotation ERA with Strasburg is 3.11; without him, it would be 3.17. Do you really think that differential is the differential standing between the Nats and disaster?

Without Strasburg, the Nats’ run differential would be 58 more runs scored than the opposition, as opposed to 108. I’m not entirely convinced the Nats would be absolute dead ducks without Strasburg in the postseason this time around.

We wouldn’t even be having these conversations if the Nats hadn’t shocked everyone by jumping into and dominating the National League East race, never mind piling up (through this writing) maybe the best record in baseball. If the Nats were heading for a finish similar to 2011′s, when they ended 21.5 back of the first place Phillies, they could shut down Strasburg without having to answer to every scribe, pundit, future Hall of Fame third baseman, and armchair harrumpher on the circuit.

From the beginning of the season the Nats’ brain trust insisted they were building for the long term. And, that they were going to obey medical soundness, and nothing else, in determining when to close Strasburg’s season. They may have felt they had a team to compete over the next several years; they may have been caught by surprise, even allowing manager Davey Johnson’s early season confidence, when the Nats jumped out in front, stayed, and put (through this writing) six games between themselves and the second-place Braves.

But they don’t have to, and they shouldn’t, listen to anyone but their own sense now. Dearly though I’ve loved watching and listening to him over the years, Chipper Jones can rant his head off about striking when the iron’s hot and damn the consequences. Les Carpenter can rant his head off about how wrong this is, the Nats “willingly let[ting] this one great chance get away.” It shouldn’t mean two pins to the Nats, or even to Strasburg. He’s only human enough that there’s yes-yes in his heart; he’s got to be sensible enough to know he, and his team, are far better off keeping no-no in their eyes and their brains. With both trained squarely, and unapologetically, on that long term.

Especially because this year’s Nats aren’t exactly a gang of cream puffs without him. And they’d like as much insurance, to the extent that you can have it, that they’ll be absolute creamers with him, for seasons enough to come.

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