The Nationals open tomorrow what promises to be the most compelling second half to a season since the franchise arrived in town in 2005, owners of the NL's best record but saddled with several major questions that need to be answered.Today we're counting down the five most significant storylines to the remainder of the Nationals' season. Next up is storyline No. 2: The club's plan to shut down ace Stephen Strasburg before season's end...
It's been hovering over the Nationals since at least the first day of spring training. Perhaps since the offseason. And perhaps since all the way back in September 2011, when the Nats shut down Jordan Zimmermann at 161 13 innings in his first full season back from Tommy John surgery and suggested they would do the same with Stephen Strasburg in 2012.
And we're getting closer to it becoming reality.
Are the Nationals really going to shut down their ace with several weeks remaining in a pennant race, then prevent him from pitching in the postseason if they reach it?
Yep, that's been Mike Rizzo's plan from the beginning, and he continues to stick to it.
The rationale: The Nationals, as an organization, don't believe in letting young pitchers exceed their previous seasons' innings totals by more than 30 percent or so. This is especially true for young pitchers coming back from major injuries like the torn elbow ligament that Zimmermann suffered in 2009 and Strasburg suffered in 2010.
Strasburg who turns 24 later this month, has never thrown more than 123 innings in a professional season. A 30 percent increase over that total would bring him to 160 innings, which is roughly the number the Nationals are expected to limit the right-hander to this season.
Strasburg has already thrown 100 innings (counting his one inning of relief in Tuesday's All-Star Game). Which means he's probably got about 10 more starts at his disposal before the shutdown occurs sometime in early September.
Because of a couple of off-days built into the late-season schedule, the Nationals might only need to fill Strasburg's rotation spot four times (obviously more if they reach the postseason). But that won't diminish the uproar that will occur around baseball if they indeed stick to their plan and sideline their best pitcher down the stretch.
Rizzo and manager Davey Johnson's ability to explain their rationale and justify their decision -- to fans, media, the baseball world and even their own players -- might be their toughest task.
They're committed to shutting down Strasburg. But can they convey their reasons for doing so in a manner that convinces everyone else to commit to the plan as well?