Sunday, September 9, 2012

That's A Clown Move Bro!

Very few things in sport frustrate me more than the way that the Washington Nationals are handling the Stephen Strasburg situation.

Strasburg, who missed last season after having Tommy John surgery, was shut down for the remainder of the 2012 season (playoffs included) after he reached the new magic number for pampered young pitchers of 160 innings pitched after a lackluster outing against the lowly Miami Marlins.

Strasburg's poor performance likely had more to do with anxiety from the media circus surrounding the clown decision by the Nationals executive brass to end the Cu Young award contender's season than any physical impediment.

While Nationals GM Rizzo amassed medical research from leading orthopedic surgeons and practicioners to substantiate the veracity of the organization's decision to protect their young asset from potential further stress on his golden elbow, this move screams of a preemptive public relations move disguised as the Nationals being concerned about the long-term health of their superstar.

If you ask any Cubs or Reds fan what their impressions are of manager Dusty Baker, and I have, they will invariably say that, while they like him as a manager, they do not approve of the way that he handles his pitching staff.

A great deal of this sentiment comes from the assumption that Baker and former Cubs GM Jim Hendry sacrificed the health and, ultimately, the careers of phenom prospects Mark Prior and Kerry Wood during the 2003-2005 seasons in pursuit of an elusive World Series title on Chicago's North Side.

While Mark Prior's career was more than likely derailed by a severe shoulder injury that he sustained while running the bases (an argument for the designated hitter rather than against Dusty Baker) and Kerry Wood recently admitted that he first hurt his arm during the famous 20 strikeout game (Jim Riggleman was the manager by the way), perception becomes reality in the dystopian universe of modern sports and entertainment.

Rizzo, a Chicago native, is keenly aware of the power of perception and has guarded himself and the Nationals organization against the type of blame and backlash that will, rightly or wrongly, color the careers of Dusty Baker, Jim Hendry, and the Cubs organization until the Cubs finally reach the unreachable star.

If and when Strasburg walks off the field, possibly for the last time, in excruciating pain with his arm hanging from a shredded UCL ligament, the Nationals will always be able to say that they did everything they possible could to preserve and protect their franchise player.

What the first place Nationals will ultimately not be able to defend is potentially sacrificing the opportunity to bring the first baseball championship to D.C. in over a half century because of what might prove to be undue caution.

In the short series that define modern playoff baseball, having dominant starting pitching at the beginning and end ultimately defines the championship prospects of those teams.

Whether its Matt Cain and Tim Lincecum of the 2010 San Francisco Giants, Roy Halladay and Cliff Lee of the 2009 Phillies, or Chris Carpenter and Kyle Lohse of last years World Champion St. Louis Cardinals, championships are won in baseball by having the best front of the rotation at the beginning of each series.

With the possible exception of Gio Gonzalez, Drew Storen, John Lannan, Edwin Jackson, and Jordan Zimmermann do not add up to Stephen Strasburg, let alone Halladay, Lee, Hamels, Cain or Lincecum. Having to face Strasburg and Gonzalez at the beginning of a series and every three days afterward would be a tall order for any team to overcome in either league.

The Nationals are betting on having sustained success in a diminished National League East for years to come in much the same way that the Atlanta Braves did when they won 15 consecutive division titles from 1991-2006. What gets obscured by the shadow of the Braves success is the reality that they only converted their divisional dominance into 1, count it, 1 World Series title, which came in 1995. Ask Maddux, Glaven, and Smoltz how many of those division crowns they would trade in for just one more world title. Over/under - all of them!

World Series titles are elusive beasts, kind of like Big Foot or the Loch Ness monster. Just asks the Cleveland Indians, Milwaukee Brewers, Texas Rangers and, yes, my beloved Chicago Cubs. When you're having a magical season the likes of the one that seemed to be happening in our nation's capitol, there is no future. There's only the next pitch, the next game and the next series leading up to the October Classic.

If Strasburg and the Nationals have a repeat performance next season, or anytime over the next 5-10 seasons,and hoist a championship banner in the end, all of the detractors, myself included, will look like cynical alarmist who lacked the wisdom and foresight of the Nationals leadership team.

However, if Strasburg and the Nationals are never able to sustain the success that had its genesis this season into the future or transmute it into championship gold, as more often than not happens in the game of baseball (1990 Pirates and 2004-2006 Red Sox anyone), how much regret will follow Strasburg and Rizzo throughout their respective careers?

There's taking a chance at glory and failing or not taking a chance at all. I'll take trying and failing all day, everyday. So would Kerry Wood and Mark Prior I imagine.

With the Nationals decision to shut down Strasburg, Dusty Baker seems poised to lead his third franchise deep into the postseason. He has to finish the deal this time to prove that maybe, just maybe there's something to the Dusty Baker method afterall.

Former Jets and Chiefs head coach Herm Edwards may have said it better than anyone could - you play to win the game.