WASHINGTON, DC - SEPTEMBER 17: Stephen Strasburg #37 of the Washington Nationals pitches against the Florida Marlins at Nationals Park on September 17, 2011 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Greg Fiume/Getty Images)
So say the Washington Nationals do sign Prince Fielder. [You don't actually have to say it out loud.] And say the Nationals -- buoyed by the addition of the big slugging first baseman to a lineup with a healthy Ryan Zimmerman, 2009-2011's Michael Morse (as opposed to 2000-2008 Morse), Jayson Werth (Philly-Werth) and eventually Bryce Harper -- are able to improve on 2011's 80 wins and put themselves in a position to battle for a Wild Card berth or a division title?
Davey Johnson, in the first of what are sure to be many bold pronouncements by the 68-year-old skipper, told reporters earlier this winter his goal in 2012 was, "A pennant. Winning the pennant. Winning the division. Winning the National League." Johnson admitted to reporters, "I couldn't have said that last Spring. I didn't think the talent was ready, but after being there and seeing the progress that some of the young players made, I think we definitely can contend and I would be sorely disappointed if we didn't do just that." So say the Washington Nationals live up to their manager's expectations, fight their way into contention, and Stephen Strasburg reaches his innings limit...
The Nationals have said nothing, publicly, about anything other than following the same plan they did with Jordan Zimmermann in 2011 when he reached his innings limit and then shut it down in August. "If we're lucky enough and improved enough to be playing meaningful games in September," D.C. GM Mike Rizzo told hosts Kevin Kennedy and Jim Duquette in an MLB Network Radio interview this past September, "and [Strasburg's] pitch limits are up, just like Jordan Zimmermann this year, he will be done. We'll sit with our plan and we'll stick to it."
Washington experimented with giving Zimmermann extra rest coming out of the All-Star Break last summer, but the right-hander struggled in the first two starts on that schedule. "Yeah, of course I wanted to pitch the whole season," Zimmermann said when asked about getting shut down early, "and maybe skipping a start here and there during the season I could've been able to pitch a whole season, but we tried that a couple times, and it seemed like every time I either skipped a start or had a longer rest I didn't pitch very well, so I think they wanted to keep me on a five-day rotation, and when I was able to pitch every fifth day I seemed to do a lot better."
The Nats' GM, in a conference call with reporters earlier this winter, said the team hadn't decided "in concrete" the number of innings the 23-year-old Strasburg will be held to in 2012, but he said he had, "... general parameters of what I think is something I would allow him to throw." Rizzo declined to share the math, explaining that, "... there's strategy that's employed in it and we don't want people to know our business, but we have a good idea of the parameters of where we want [Strasburg] to throw, and we'll adhere to those parameters. Like I said, it's nothing in concrete because we want to see how he comes to Spring Training, how he feels and how he develops throughout the season."
Determined as he is to compete with the elite of the NL East, Davey Johnson told reporters, "I'm going with the medical experts," when he was asked about how he'd handle the Nats' '09 no.1 overall pick. "Whatever they think is the best thing to do. I know that what I saw at the end of the year, I saw a very healthy Stephen Strasburg. He reminded me of a guy that didn't look like he'd ever been injured. There was no change in the delivery. Everything was free and fluid. The ball was leaping out of his hand, and he's going to be just a regular pitcher until we've got to shut him down. He's over the special treatment. Now I would handle him just like any other pitcher on my staff and when we feel like the arm has had enough we'll shut him down, just like with [Zimmermann]."
Even after trading two starters (Tom Milone and Brad Peacock) who were likely to pitch in the majors in 2012 in the four-for-two deal with the Oakland A's that landed Gio Gonzalez, Rizzo told reporters he thought he had the depth to make up for the fact that Strasburg would eventually be shut down. "'We feel that we have at least six or seven quality guys that we can call upon to start in the major leagues," the GM said, "We feel that we're about eight or nine deep as far as starting pitching depth in our organization, our system, so I think the Strasburg thing doesn't come into play that much for us now.'"
Barring any setbacks, hiccups, or Spring Training developments, the 2012 season will feature a top of the rotation in Stephen Strasburg, Gio Gonzalez and Jordan Zimmermann that Rizzo said recently, "... is in the realm of something that we've never had here before." Should the Nationals somehow work their way into contention, unless something changes, or they figure out some way to make it work, the Nationals will have to fight for their first postseason berth without their potential-future-ace.