The Washington Nationals Pitching Without Stephen Strasburg

Stephen Strasburg is slowly but surely building his way to the not-so-magical 160 innings pitched limit that Washington Nationals general manager Mike Rizzo says is the absolute bottom-line shutdown moment for Strasburgh’s season, including the playoffs. I’ve still got a hard time buying that Rizzo would really not his let his best pitcher go in the postseason if it comes to that, others who follow the Nats much closer than I do say the GM will hold firm. With Washington three games up in the NL East, TheSportsNotebook takes a look at the remaining Nationals starters to see how the absence of Strasburg would affect their ability to make the playoffs, win the NL East and ultimately make a big run in October.

Gio Gonzalez (13-6, 3.34 ERA, 22 starts): The deal to bring Gonzalez over from Oakland in the offseason has been one of the great steals of 2012. The 26-year-old lefty is on pace for his third straight year of 30-plus starts and keeping his ERA in the low 3s. While you can argue that the shift to the National League should have produced a drop in ERA without a designated hitter, you can counter that by noting that Gonzalez went from a pitcher’s dream park in Oakland to one less so in Washington.

Jordan Zimmerman (8-6, 2.45 ERA, 22 starts): Zimmerman’s ERA and workload are that of a true #1 starter and after a strong performance in 2011 when he got his first chance at a regular rotation turn, it’s not all that surprising.

Edwin Jackson (6-7, 3.56 ERA, 21 starts): Jackson has given the Nationals exactly what they wanted when they acquired him in the offseason. Just like he gave St. Louis exactly what they wanted when he was picked up as a rental at the ’11 trade deadline. Jackson won’t dazzle you, but he chews up innings, posts a respectable ERA and stabilizes the middle of a rotation. He’s also got playoff experience, including winning a do-or-die NLDS game against Philadelphia last year and that’s going to be invaluable for this current Nationals’ staff.

Ross Detwiler (6-4, 3.02, 16 starts): Detwiler’s also made six relief appearances and logged over 100 innings. His ERA is good right now, although of all the Washington starters he’s been the most up and down over the course of the season. The 26-year-old pitcher posted similar numbers in ten starts last year. The key concern will be how his arm responds now that he has to be stretched out over an entire year.

These are the four starters that currently join with Strasburg. Once the shutdown occurs, the fifth spot would be up for grabs, likely between Tom Gorzelanny and Chien-Ming Wang. My understanding is that the Nats prefer Wang get the job. He’s on a Double-A rehab stint right now and has an unencouraging 7.61 ERA in four starts. The ERA was 4.04 in the same sample size in 2011. Ultimately there’s no reason to think Wang has gotten his career back on track after being derailed in the Bronx by a fluke leg injury in 2008. Gorzelanny doesn’t have the upside Wang might offer, but the past two years as a starter he’s had an ERA in the 4s. This year Gorzelanny’s been in the bullpen and has a nice 3.48 ERA.

When you look at this rotation, you can see why Rizzo is comfortable shutting Strasburg down in the regular season. Even without him, they still have a legitimate 1-2 punch in Gonzalez and Zimmerman, and a veteran presence in Jackson. With a six-game lead in the wild-card race, I can’t imagine this staff would not make the playoffs, particularly when you factor in that Strasburg’s got probably five starts before he gets shut down. The NL East is a little tougher call, with Atlanta in close pursuit, but the Braves have deeper pitching problems and in the end five more Strasburg starters plus this group above can likely hold off Atlanta.

But what about when you go into a playoff series, let’s say against Cincinnati or San Francisco? I pick those two teams not to disregard others, but because they are the two whom the presence of Strasburg might be needed to ensure Washington has the best starting pitching. The Reds and Giants each have true aces, in Johnny Cueto and Matt Cain, and each has depth. They can match up, if not exceed, the four starters outlined above (the need for a #5 would be gone in the playoffs). Furthermore, if Washington reaches the World Series, they would need Strasburg’s hard stuff to match up with AL lineups and they’d likely need Detwiler in the bullpen to give Davey Johnson more options.

So by all means, slow Strasburg down the rest of the regular season. Pitch him every seventh day, limit him to five innings a start, do what you have to do to keep him at 160 innings in the regular season. But don’t do the hard shutdown that’s currently projected and certainly don’t keep him out of the playoffs. You never know when a chance at a World Series title is going to happen and Strasburg makes the Nats the National League favorite.