Cubs take note: A shut-down Strasburg hasn’t really paid off
BY GORDON WITTENMYER Staff Reporter August 22, 2013 10:16PM
Washington Nationals starting pitcher Stephen Strasburg delivers during the eighth inning of a baseball game against the Chicago Cubs Thursday, Aug. 22, 2013, in Chicago. (AP Photo/Charles Rex Arbogast)
Updated: August 23, 2013 10:05AM
Nearly two years into a rebuilding process so extreme it entails willfully sacrificing whole major-league seasons, the Cubs spent a gloomy Thursday afternoon staring at the one man in baseball who symbolizes the risky game they’re playing with this chosen path.
The Cubs didn’t look any better against Washington Nationals’ Stephen Strasburg for most of the game than they have against anybody else.
But whether they were looking into a version of their future as Strasburg pitched into the ninth in a 5-4 loss by the Cubs in 13 innings could be the bigger issue that plays out as the Cubs inch toward the day — the year — they decide it’s time for ownership to spend and for the front office to buy instead of cannibalize the roster.
Will they be able to suddenly turn on a switch and win when — if — a handful of those kids in A-ball are ready to make an impact in the big leagues?
If they don’t find that switch at that point, what will it say about all those spent seasons flipping big-league players to seed the farm system?
And if they do find it, well, it might make them the first team in baseball history to do it.
Look no further than Strasburg for the best recent example of that.
When the Nationals charged toward the best record in the National League last year, ahead of schedule in their rebuilding process, general manager Mike Rizzo found himself with the unenviable dilemma of shutting down his best young pitcher three weeks before the playoff opener — or scrap the long-held plan to limit Strasburg’s innings in his first full season after Tommy John surgery.
“Certainly, I agree with the premise that opportunities are rare,” Rizzo said, “but you have to make the right decision for the wellness of the player and the long-term viability of the franchise, and that’s what I thought we did.
“And I still feel very comfortable with it.”
The Nats, after all, looked poised for a long run atop the National League East, so no worries if 2012 didn’t necessarily reach the final game of October. Right?
But they were bounced by the St. Louis Cardinals in a close series in the first round of the playoffs.
And the Nats haven’t found anything close to that 98-win switch this season — still wearing a losing record even after beating the Cubs in three of four games this week.
“It was a unique situation,” said pitcher Edwin Jackson, a member of that Nationals team before signing with the Cubs as a free agent last winter. “The reason we lost wasn’t because of a starting pitcher. Still, it’s tough when you shut a pitcher down like that.”
The Cardinals came from behind with four runs in the ninth inning to eliminate the Nationals in the decisive Game 5 of that series.
Jackson downplays an emotional effect on the team when it lost the services of Strasburg.
“I’m sure it sucked more for him than the team,” he said.
Strasburg insisted repeatedly that he wanted to keep pitching.
But the point is less about whether he would have made a difference than it is about the merits of going all in when those “rare” opportunities arise — or, as the case might be, taking oneself all out for the promise of an opportunity at some untold future point.
About the risks of expecting the “on” switch to be there in major-league competition when you decide to reach for it.
“Everybody knows that it’s not always easy to make the playoffs,” said Jackson, who has done it with three different teams. “When you have the opportunity you seize it.”