Thom Loverro: Not worth throwing away Strasburg's career for Nationals

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ESPN baseball analyst and former major league pitcher Rick Sutcliffe has a plan for the Washington Nationals to extend Stephen Strasburg into the postseason.

"If they don't need him [in his last two starts], well guess what, we're still at 175 innings," Sutcliffe said. "And I'll guarantee you one thing, if they get a chance to play Game 1 against anybody in the postseason, Stephen Strasburg's going to be on the mound."

Like Mike Tyson said, everyone has a plan until they get punched in the mouth -- or, in this case, have to explain the possible premature end of a once-in-a-generation pitcher like Strasburg.

The Nationals have their own plan. It's the plan they followed last year with Jordan Zimmermann, who like Strasburg was coming back from Tommy John surgery.

Though most of baseball pundits seem clueless about this, Zimmermann has been the Nationals' best pitcher this year, a possible Cy Young candidate. In fact, if it were Game ?7 of the World Series and you had to pick one pitcher from the Nationals' rotation to send out there, Zimmermann -- not Strasburg -- seems a likely choice.

The Nationals' plan makes sense -- and Sutcliffe should know better.

He was in Baltimore in the early 1990s and watched Ben McDonald -- the 1989 version of Strasburg -- never fully realize his potential. His career was shortened because he was overworked in the name of victory -- in his case in the College World Series for LSU.

McDonald told the New York Times in 2009 that he believes he was done before he ever pitched for the Orioles -- and it was all done in the name of team success in high school and college.

"In high school I threw 221 pitches in 13 innings in a state semifinal game, then the next day closed the last four innings of the championship game, and that really wasn't anything unusual," McDonald said. "From my sophomore year at LSU through the Olympics and my junior season, I threw 352 innings in basically a 14-month period. Obviously, that didn't help my arm, either. Thank God they aren't doing that anymore."

Yes, thank God for that.

Baseball has a pitching problem, a perceived epidemic of damaged young arms that is begging for one of those blue ribbon panels that commissioner Bud Selig likes to form to study baseball issues. This one is worthy of study from Little League to the majors. If one good thing has come out of the Strasburg shutdown debate, it is there is not enough data from which to draw the best conclusions about how to protect these young arms.

Until that happens, though, it would seem the best plan for Strasburg is the cautious one -- the one that means years from now no one has to say, "Thank God they aren't doing that anymore."

Examiner columnist Thom Loverro is the co-host of "The Sports Fix" from noon to 2 p.m. Monday through Friday on ESPN980 and espn980.com. Contact him at tloverro@washingtonexaminer.com.

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Thom Loverro

Sports columnist
The Washington Examiner