MLB.com Columnist

Richard Justice

Rizzo, Nats handling Strasburg the right way

Justice: Nats handling Strasburg the right way

Rizzo, Nats handling Strasburg the right way
I can't wrap my mind around the criticism of the Nationals for being cautious with Stephen Strasburg. It would be absolutely unconscionable for them to do anything else. In the end, it's not all that complicated.

There are no guarantees. That's the most important thing to know in all of this. There is no definitive medical data, either. Strasburg could throw 230 innings this season, pitch the clinching game of the World Series and still have an uninterrupted 20-year career. He could also get hurt in 2013 no matter how careful the Nats are with him this year.

That's the thing about pitchers. Shoulders and elbows weren't designed to hold up under the stress of throwing a baseball. The attrition rate is astonishing. Since they regularly pitch in pain, they have trouble identifying danger.

Mike Flanagan, who won the American League Cy Young Award for the Orioles in 1979, sat in the trainer's room one afternoon as a young pitcher and told a team doctor about the terrible pain in his elbow.

Flanagan listened for a bit, smiled and spoke to the doctor.

"Wait," Flanagan said. "You mean it's not supposed to feel that way."

Even if the Nationals could trust Strasburg to tell them the truth about his health, they wouldn't keep giving him the ball. There are too many stories of young pitchers who were feeling great one minute and blown out the next.

That's why Nats general manager Mike Rizzo has told reporters to stop asking Strasburg and manager Davey Johnson about the decision. Rizzo will make it, and he will not look back.

Rizzo has compiled as much medical information as he can find on how best to protect a pitcher who is (a) 24 years old and (b) two years removed from Tommy John surgery.

The GM has concluded that increasing a pitcher's workload by more than, say, 30 percent will put him at risk for injury. Again, there are no guarantees. But doctors have long warned teams against overworking young pitchers. Mark Prior is a recent example. Kerry Wood is another.

Rizzo handled Jordan Zimmermann's recovery from Tommy John surgery exactly the same way last summer, but no one noticed because the Nationals weren't in contention and because Zimmermann wasn't the first pick of the 2009 First-Year Player Draft.

"It's a health question," Rizzo told The Washington Post in May. "It's caring about the player and the person more so than the won-loss record."

The Nats have looked at other alternatives. For instance, shutting Strasburg down now and bringing him back for the postseason.

That idea was rejected, because it would essentially mean putting him through another Spring Training without an offseason to rest. In effect, he'd be squeezing two seasons into one.

Skipping starts has been shelved, too. He would still be doing his side work, and for Strasburg, that side work consists of throwing 95 mph and breaking off that knee-buckling curveball. There would still be stress on the elbow.

Most of the noise about the decision comes down to the Nationals having a chance to win the World Series. With Strasburg at the front of their rotation, they might be the best team in baseball.

Most franchises aren't in this position very often, so why not go for it, and if the kid gets hurt, well, he gets hurt.

Rizzo just can't bring himself to go down this road. His good reputation in baseball begins with his gift of being able to identify and develop talent. The first-place Nats, with all that young talent, are a tribute to his work.

He can't bring himself to risk injuring Strasburg for the sake of winning a championship. Washington drafted Strasburg with the idea of building a franchise around him way beyond 2012, and that's still the plan.

Rizzo's decision will be as tough and as controversial as just about any decision any general manager has ever made. But he's a baseball guy, a player development guy. He knows the right thing to do for both the player and the organization. He'd have trouble living with himself if he did anything else.

Richard Justice is a columnist for MLB.com. Read his blog, Justice4U. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.