25-year-old right-hander Jordan Zimmermann, in his first full-year back after having had Tommy John surgery in 2009, reached his innings-limit for the 2011 season on August 28th and was shut down for the year. Had the Nationals been in contention, they would have been losing their best pitcher. Should they be in contention next season, they'll be in the same situation. Stephen Strasburg's rehab program has been compared to Zimmermann's since the day the then-22-year-old right-hander injured his elbow. Zimmermann, the Nats' '07 2nd Round pick, returned to the majors the day before the extent of the injury to Strasburg's elbow was announced in late-August 2010. Strasburg, the Nationals' '09 1st Round pick, returned to the majors this season after Zimmermann had reached his limit.
Washington tried to give Jordan Zimmermann extra rest coming out of the All-Star Break, but the right-hander struggled in the first two starts, so the Nationals decided to pitch him on his regular schedule until he reached his limit. In an interview on MLB Network Radio this past winter, D.C. GM Mike Rizzo said that the same will happen with Strasburg next year even if the team is in contention.
"If we're lucky enough and improved enough to be playing meaningful games in September," Rizzo told hosts Kevin Kennedy and Jim Duquette, "and his 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. If I'm the general manager here at that time, we'll certainly put the pitch and innings limit on him and we'll probably have our internal discussions and arguments, but at the end of the day just like Jordan Zimmermann this year, we're going to stay true to the plan and we'll have to find ways to replace him in our rotation."
In a conference call with reporters last week, the Nats' GM said the team hadn't decided "in concrete" how many innings Strasburg would pitch in 2012. "I have general parameters of what I think is something I would allow him to throw," Rizzo told reporters, "I'm not going to disclose it to anybody because, obviously, 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."
Nats' Skipper Davey Johnson was asked this afternoon how he planned to handle Stephen Strasburg's innings in 2012. "I'm going with the medical experts," Johnson said, "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]."
Though unhappy to be shut down while the team was still playing, Jordan Zimmermann seemed to accept the decision when asked about it late this season since he'd known from the start how things would play out. "You can look at it both ways," Zimmermann said, "Yeah, of course I wanted to pitch the whole season 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."
Strasburg will have the same opportunity Zimmermann did, having gotten a foundation of innings in at the end of this past season as Zimmermann did in late 2010, to start the 2012 campaign in Spring Training just like the rest of the pitchers in the organization who'll be competing for a spot in the Nats' rotation. When he's reached his innings-limit he'll be shut down. Regardless of what happens with the Nats next season, there's a long, hopefully successful career ahead for both pitchers. If the Nats are in contention they might have to win it without their ace. If they get there and are forced to make that decision it's going to be a hard sell with fans.