A base of innings in late 2011, a limited amount in his first full-season back in 2012, and then a chance to pitch a full season without limits in 2013. That's been the plan for Stephen Strasburg from the start, just like it was with Jordan Zimmermann before him.
Zimmermann threw 39.2 innings in the minors in 2010 and 31.0 in the majors as he worked his way back from the Tommy John surgery he had in late 2009. In 2011, the right-hander threw 161.1 IP before he was shut down for the year. When he was done for the season, Zimmermann was disappointed he couldn't continue to help his teammates, but excited about how the season had gone and what the future held.
"I felt great. I felt strong all year, and I just want to work hard this offseason, and come Spring Training be ready to go and pitch 200-plus innings next year," Zimmermann told reporters after his last start in 2011. In 2012, the 25-going-on-26-year-old '07 2nd Round pick pitched a career-high 195.2 innings and made the first postseason start of his four-year MLB career.
Before and during the 2012 campaign, Nats' GM Mike Rizzo was clear about how Strasburg would be handled in his own first full-year back. "There will be a limit," Rizzo told MLB Network Radio hosts Jim Bowden and Casey Stern. "I can't put a concrete number on what the limit is," the Nats' General Manager explained, "We're going to use our eyes and experience level to determine when he's had enough. When I've determined he's had enough, we're going to shut him down just like we did Jordan Zimmermann last year, and hopefully we'll have the depth in our rotation to absorb that. He's a terrific young pitcher, but after throwing 60 innings in 2011, we're certainly not going to let him go out there and throw 200 innings in 2012."
After throwing 55.1 IP in the minors in 2010 and 68.0 innings in the majors before suffering the injury to his elbow, Strasburg returned for 20.1 IP in the Nats' system late in 2011 and 24.1 IP with the Nats (the 60.0 IP total Rizzo mentioned included rehab work before he pitched competitively). In his first full year back in 2012, Strasburg went 159.1 innings before he was shut down for the year, a little bit earlier than had been expected due to what the Nationals saw from the 24-year-old '09 no.1 overall pick on and off the field. "I feel physically great. That’s the thing,'" a frustrated Strasburg told reporters including the Washington Post's Adam Kilgore after his 2012 season ended in early September, "'But I think, it’s not just about one player. They want me to be here for many years to come.'"
In 2013, as Strasburg's agent Scott Boras told FOXSports.com's Jon Morosi in an article posted Sunday night, the right-hander will head into Spring Training (hopefully) 100% healthy and return to the rotation with no limits. "'He’s going to have six months now to prepare for next season, when you consider that he didn’t pitch in September and October,'" Boras explains in the article, "'He’s going to be a No. 1 who’s going to throw a couple hundred innings.'"
"[Given] the theories about Boras’ influence in the decision to idle Strasburg after 159-1/3 innings following elbow surgery," Mr. Morosi writes, "we can probably take that [200.0 inning total] as gospel." Boras, for his part, tells the FOXSports.com reporter that stories portraying him as, "... a shadowy figure in Washington’s corridors of power, prioritizing Strasburg’s earning potential," (or "long-term well-being" the writer jokes), over the Nationals' chance to win the franchise's first World Series championship were inaccurate.
Though his client didn't like it and was unhappy when his season ended prematurely, Boras told the FOXSports' reporter that there was little mystery involved behind the scenes. "'All of us were on the same page since February,'" Boras is quoted explaining, "'[Fellow Nationals starter Jordan] Zimmermann had success with the same program, so there wasn’t much debate.'"
Why exactly the idea that both the Nationals and Strasburg's agent may have prioritized the pitcher's long-term health over short-term success is talked about derisively is unclear. The Nationals' decision to go with what they had and hope it was enough to get them their first championship even without Strasburg was a decision they made long before the 2012 season began and long before they knew they would go on to win the division and earn a postseason berth, and they did so with future success in mind. Laugh all you want, the Nats plan to be back in the postseason in 2013 and they have a healthy, angry ace with something to prove leading the way.