When does 160 innings not equal 160 innings? When the GM says so, that's when.
Nationals general manager Mike Rizzo told ESPN that right-hander Stephen Strasburg may not be shut down at 160 innings but instead when Rizzo sees something that indicates the time has come.
All season long we've heard that Strasburg's limit would fall somewhere between 160 and 170 innings, which would place his final outing somewhere in early September -- based upon him averaging about six innings per start. That, now, seems less etched in stone than it was at this time last week.
Strasburg himself has seemed less enthusiastic about ending his season early in recent weeks, saying the Nationals would have to rip the ball out of his hands. Conversely, many observers believe the club has sufficient starting pitching to get through a postseason without him.
This whole innings limit kerfuffle is based entirely on what the Nats went through with Jordan Zimmermann last year. He was shut down after 1611Ú3 innings of work, though he claimed at the time that he felt great and could continue. Now he admits that the lighter workload in 2011 likely has worked out in everyone's favor.
With the non-waiver trade deadline approaching, the Nationals have been linked to names as diverse as Ryan Dempster and Kevin Millwood, the presumption being that they'll need another top-of-the-rotation type to pick up the slack when Strasburg sits down. Dempster, along with names like Matt Garza, Francisco Liriano and Wandy Rodriguez, would require parting with high ceiling-type prospects. Millwood likely would not, but what makes him any more attractive than John Lannan or Zach Duke? The Nationals have sufficient internal options to pick up a start or three in September, and the postseason doesn't require five starters.
Strasburg is a special talent. Being overly protective of his right arm is the right thing to do. While the situation is complicated by a likely postseason scenario, I can't envision Rizzo suddenly determining that Strasburg is now cleared for 190 innings, which still wouldn't get the righty very far into the postseason, if at all. He says his eyes will tell him when the time has come, so I suppose it's possible he may see something at 140 or 150 innings that will hasten the shutdown.
It has been speculated that the Nationals' success this year was a year earlier than the franchise expected, though manager Davey Johnson labeled them as potential division winners in spring training. Rizzo's bottom line, though, is sustained excellence. Build a team for long-term success around power arms and establish a culture of winning. Strasburg was the linchpin of that formula, and jeopardizing his future by sending him to the hill for even one additional start doesn't make a great deal of sense, regardless of how tempting it might be to do so.
Examiner columnist Phil Wood co-hosts the "Mid-Atlantic Sports Report" and is a regular contributor to "Nats Xtra" on MASN. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.