What Strasburg’s Injury Means for DC Baseball

Washington has never been a baseball mecca.  Its lone world championship came 85 years ago and it took seven games to attain it.  This is baseball’s third stint in the District and the sport has not been kind to DC.  It seems now that the baseball gods have decided the Nationals will suffer a similar fate.

The original Washington Senators were a founding member of the American League in 1901 and lasted until ownership moved the team to Minnesota in 1961.  That same year, the AL expanded to include a new Senators franchise.  A little over a decade later, the second Senators franchise relocated to Texas and became the Rangers.  It wasn’t until the floudering Expos were annexed by Major League Baseball that our capital would have its own team again.

The Nationals have struggled since their move from Montreal but have managed to attract a loyal fan base quickly.  Washington was building up for 2011 and beyond because ownership understands the demographic shifts of the area.  DC is on the rise and people come here from around the country but especially from the I-95 corridor.  Baltimore is struggling and despite hiring Showalter, the Orioles are in a perpetual slide.  Washington was becoming a stronger market for baseball.  DC is Hog country and will always be Redskin-dominated but there is room for a diamond and a gridiron.

Without Strasburg and the hype, the Nationals fan base won’t erode but their hopes of a winner obviously will.  A few years from now, Bryce Harper may help slug the Nats to the postseason, but who will pitch them to a pennant?  If Strasburg’s injury threatens his phenom status, where do the Nats go from here?

Drafting top-tier talent only gets you half-way home.  GM Mike Rizzo was depending on Strasburg and Harper to convince free agents to come knocking on Washington’s door.  Now, their most prized possession, and most expensive in the long-run, won’t even be on the 25-man next season.  Lingering in the NL East cellar with four established teams gives credence to the idea that losing begets losing.

One thing is for certain: Nationals management must think fast to salvage their future because right now, their baseball destiny is something that the District has seen all too often – the familiar confines of last place.

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Wood-Prior Syndrome

Stephen Strasburg has arrived – on the Disabled List – for the second time in a month.  Any savvy baseball fan will know that #37′s year is finished.  What now exists for a growing number of Nationals fans is whether Strasburg’s fiery right arm can handle the rigors of an entire Major League season?

Nats GM Mike Rizzo and the organization have been cautious with Strasburg since he debuted back in June, setting up pitch counts and innings limits, allowing Strasburg to gain necessary experience without burdening his arm too much.  With their young ace headed to the DL for a second time, Rizzo and Co. will be charged to protect their asset.  Unfortunately, protecting young arms is a matter of great debate around baseball.  What Mike Rizzo needs to be concerned about is what I have dubbed “Wood-Prior Syndrome.”

We all remember the tales of Kerry Wood and Mark Prior, aka “Chicago Heat.”  Two phenoms that eventually succumbed to arm injuries.  The Cubs had the unenviable task of balancing their players’ health with the responsibility of filling Wrigley Field.  In the end, more than a few baseball onlookers and seam-heads blamed the Cubs front-office and Dusty Baker (Cubs manager at the time) for mismanaging them.

Today, the Nats face a similar dilemma.  Wood-Prior Syndrome is simply a self-fulfilling prophesy.  The Nats have the same questions most franchises do when it comes to young arms.  If we protect him too much, will we stifle his development and potentially hurt his arm strength?  If we throw him to the wolves too quickly, will he re-injure his arm and how long can we protect him before an angry horde of fans demand his return?  And what of the financial costs of his protection?  And the emotional cost of Nats fans?  Of course, Strasburg’s young arm is like Wood’s and Prior’s.  These arms define the franchise and cost a fortune.

If Mike Rizzo handles this situation like any sufferer of Wood-Prior Syndrome, then he’s doomed to repeat the Cubs’ fate.  Rizzo may already be afflicted as we may never know if Strasburg is actually injury-prone.  Either way, Wood-Prior Syndrome always ends the same: a promising career destroyed and millions of dollars lost.

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