Column: Nationals’ ace could sit before season’s end, miss playoffs

By Gennaro Farone

The best player on the best team on the best pitching staff could become a spectator down the stretch.

Washington Nationals starting pitcher Stephen Strasburg is creeping closer to his team-imposed limit of between 160 and 180 innings pitched in 2012.

The 24-year-old flamethrower is averaging a little over 30 innings per month this year. So the question is: Do you sit your All-Star pitcher with his future health in mind, or do you send Strasburg out every fifth day and try to win it all this season?

The Nationals need to keep Strasburg on the mound. Washington doesn’t have a good shot at a World Series title; they have a great shot. With Strasburg at the front of the rotation, they’re the favorites in the National League.

Washington’s rotation is tops in the NL, and it’s not even close. The staff ranks among the best in the league in wins, earned run average, innings pitched, quality starts and opponents’ batting average.

The playoffs are all about starting pitching and the Nationals have it in spades, or more likely aces. Gio Gonzalez or Strasburg would be the ace on most teams, and the Nats march both out to the mound and have a very good third starter in Jordan Zimmermann. It’s an excellent formula for a championship.

Obviously, an outstanding pitching staff doesn’t guarantee a team a spot in the World Series, but shutting down a pitcher doesn’t guarantee a longer career. If a pitcher possesses poor mechanics, which Strasburg does, the rest might only be postponing an inevitable injury.

General Manager Mike Rizzo implemented the innings limit to protect Strasburg, who underwent Tommy John surgery in September 2010. The Nats used a similar strategy with Zimmermann last season, with a key difference: Washington didn’t have one of the best records in baseball.

You can’t blame the Nationals for trying to protect their young star, but the truth is Strasburg’s health and the Nats’ title shot may never be better than they are right now. Strasburg’s violent mechanics will continue to put his health at risk every time he throws a pitch.

The Nationals could still be in a good position, even with Strasburg potentially becoming a spectator. Edwin Jackson, Ross Detwiler and John Lannan will each move up in the rotation.

But neither of those three is a flame-throwing All-Star with a Bugs Bunny changeup. World Series titles and 24-year-old pitching stars are hard to come by; the Nats will have to decide what they value more.

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