The signing of Edwin Jackson presents the Nationals with the kind of problem that every club strives for—they have more starting pitchers than rotation slots. They actually have a LOT more starting pitchers than spots. Stephen Strasburg, Jordan Zimmermann, Gio Gonzalez, and Jackson are all locks while Chien-Ming Wang, John Lannan, and Ross Detwiler will battle for the last spot. Tom Gorzelanny makes for an above-replacement-level also ran.
The Nationals have another rotation-related problem. They are on the cusp of relevance. Their improvements this offseason should put them within shouting distance of the Wild Card (especially if there are two in 2012). Few will be surprised if the Nationals are playing for a playoff berth when the calendar turns to September.
That’s not the problem, though. The problem is, their ace, Strasburg, is expected to be on a fairly strict innings cap in 2012 that will expire right as the team is pushing for the playoffs.
But what if the Nationals solved one problem with another by optioning Strasburg to extended spring training, using two of Lannan, Wang, and Detwiler through April, and then activating Strasburg once his innings cap stretches into October?
There are certain attractive elements to that plan. While a win is a win no matter what month it comes in, knowing Strasburg is available late in the season to stifle the competition could serve as a rallying point for the team. And the team’s financial planners probably like the idea of Strasburg pitching in meaningful September games in front of a full house. The Nationals traditionally draw poorly in September.
More importantly, Strasburg would be available to pitch in the postseason. The club would find it hard to resist the urge to use Strasburg—innings cap or no—but a delayed start to 2012 means he could throw deep into games against the Phillies, Diamondbacks, or whatever other team reaches the postseason.
Of course, many of you out in reader land are shaking your head, and you are probably right to do so. Despite certain alluring qualities, this plan has its share of problems.
To the best of my knowledge, no club has tried this before. The Nationals could and should be wary about wading into uncharted waters with their generational talent. It’s also unclear if the club could successfully run Strasburg through a delayed spring training. They would have to design a unique, delayed schedule, which could have unexpected consequences.
Holding him back also changes the club’s incentives. If Strasburg reaches his innings cap in late August, the club is more likely to stick with the original plan of shutting him down. If he reached his limit in late September, the club would have an awfully difficult time shutting him down right before the playoffs.
The Nationals could always thumb their nose at their innings cap. Research has repeatedly shown that the Verducci Effect is largely hogwash. Clubs probably shouldn’t limit their pitchers based purely on innings, but rather on a robust personal evaluation of each player. Warning signs like reduced velocity or movement, physical fatigue, and release point consistency should be monitored closely. By the end of August, the Nationals may be satisfied that Strasburg has the physical durability to continue into October.
The Nationals may consider such an idea when trying to solve their two “problems.” Or it may never cross their minds. At the end of the day, it would be a shame for the Nationals to reach the postseason for the first time only to have their best pitcher unavailable because of an innings cap.