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I Love Stealing Players from the Yankees

January 16, 2013 Leave a comment

Nats-Yankees

I’ll admit to being an intermittent Yankee fan through the years. It’s what happens when your own hometown doesn’t have a baseball team for over three decades. But now that we have this very cool ball club called the Washington Nationals, it was outrageously wonderful to learn yesterday that we had stolen last year’s closer for the Bronx Bombers.

That’s right, Rafael Soriano, the guy who stepped up for the great and injured Mariano Rivera last season is now going to be wearing a curly W on his hat. Analysts have been writing that the Nationals sent a statement by agreeing to pay so much money for the best free agent relief pitcher on the market. The statement being, basically, “Screw All of You.”

See, the traditional baseball world made up of general managers, managers, owners and ornery old scouts who still spit tobacco products- doesn’t like the Washington ball club very much. They think we were crazy to sit Stephen Strasburg just to protect the young kid’s arm a year after Tommy John surgery. They see arrogance in Washington GM, Mike Rizzo’s approach because shutting down your star pitcher implies you’re keeping him healthy for all the future division titles, playoffs and World Series wins you’re going to be piling up.

Many in the traditional baseball world are also just plain crazy jealous. In Strasburg and Bryce Harper, the Nats lucked into two of the most remarkable players to come down the pike in about 20 years. The baseball establishment liked the Nats better when they were a doormat; a sorry little team from a rich but fickle market that used to have to pay a King’s ransom for any marquis talent (see Jason Werth).

But after a 98-win season and the realization that 87-year-old Nationals owner Ted Lerner is, in fact, one of the richest men in the world and certainly the wealthiest owner in the sport, suddenly old DC doesn’t looks so bad as a destination for premier talent.

But the fun part about stealing a Yankee is that back in our old insecure days, that’s what we beleaguered Washington fans thought was surely going to be the fate for our diamonds in the rough. That sometime in 2016 or 2017, Bryce Harper was going to be wearing pin stripes instead of the curly W- that it would be just a matter of time before Stephen Strasburg would someday be the opening day pitcher for the Yankees.

And now we have the Yankee closer- a decision that no doubt was actually made shortly after a chilly October night at Nationals Park when young relief ace, Drew Storen, picked the worst possible moment in the world to collapse. Blowing a six run lead in the deciding game of a playoff series is something you remember. And vow to never repeat.

Drew will get his chances in 2013, but it will be the Yankee closer, the 33-year old veteran Rafael Soriano who will be shutting the door on most nights. Young Drew will learn. But right now, it’s time for the formerly forlorn Nationals to rule the baseball world. And to their detractors: here’s a little tobacco juice in your eye.

The Strasburg Shutdown: Ultimately a Moral Decision

We live in a disposable culture, and for once, there is a sports franchise, smart enough and moral enough to say that no matter the stakes- a young man’s health trumps even a potential World Series trophy.

The Washington Nationals will not risk sacrificing their once-a-generation talent on the altar of immediate gratification.  And those calling the team “pathetic” and “disgraceful” reveal a win-now-at-any-cost mentality that for years has left a trail of broken arms and broken dreams.

Nationals fans, by the way, have been accepting of the team’s position from the get-go.  They saw how the team shut down Jordan Zimmermann last year, his first after returning from the same surgery as Strasburg, and they see how the young man is now a legitimate contender for a Cy Young award.   Local surveys find National’s fans have few qualms about this approach. All the critics so outraged on our behalf, please spare us.

Stats and Real Life Cases

It is true that there has never been a study of the careers of 24 year-old, 1st round draft picks and how they perform in the first year following Tommy John elbow surgery.  Forget the surgery.  There’s plenty of data about pitchers between the ages of 21 and 24 who have not undergone such surgery that shows the more they pitch, the more likely they are to blow out their arms or never return to their original form.  See what the Chicago Cubs did to the careers of Mark Prior and Kerry Wood.

Leo Mazzone, the former Atlanta Braves pitching coach who calls the National’s organization “pathetic” for wanting to shut down Strasburg, has nothing to be proud of in regard to how he overused a 21-year old pitching sensation named Steve Avery. To the point that by the time he got into his mid 20’s, Avery was a shadow of his former self and would never return to his early form.

It’s About the Long Haul

The way sports teams are built now, especially in baseball, there is precious little thought given to the construction of a franchise that can win consistently over a decade or more.  For most General Managers, it’s a piece-meal approach accentuated by headline-grabbing trades in the Winter and desperation gambles at the end of July.

This is not how the Washington Nationals have been constructed.  They have a nucleus of largely home-grown young players who are under contract and will play together everyday for most of the next ten years.  Their unexpected rise to the top of their sport this year is testimony to the sheer talent that has been assembled the old fashioned way; through wise scouting and careful draft selections.

The critics who whine that this could be the Nationals last shot at a World Series don’t have a clue what they are talking about.  Everyone knows the baseball playoffs are an utter crap shoot, anyway.  But this is a team that is built to last and young Stephen Strasburg is the lynch pin of a starting rotation that could well dominate hitters year after year.  I would wager a considerable sum this is not Washington’s only playoff appearance of the decade (and, of course, they’ve clinched nothing yet so it’s premature to assume just about anything).

It’s also good business to shut down Strasburg.  How many future Strasburg’s out there will ever forget how this team treated, respected and treasured the health of their young star?  Next time Nat’s General Manager, Mike Rizzo, sits down at a kitchen table with the father of a young man he wants to draft for the club, those won’t be empty promises he’ll be giving about protecting the health and career of his son.  It will be a fact guided by history.

Strasburg’s “Devastated” Teammates

But what about the poor players who expect management to field the strongest possible team for any drive to a world title?  Well, first of all, the Washington Nationals are much, much more than Stephen Strasburg.  Eliminating all of his stats, Washington’s pitching staff would still have the best ERA in the game.

Secondly, the Nationals have overcome the absences of other players important to the franchise, including Ryan Zimmerman, Michael Morse, Drew Storen, Jason Werth, Ian Desmond, Adam LaRoche and Wilson Ramos.  This has always been a team bigger than any of its individual parts.

I also believe the players will take the Strasburg shutdown as a challenge and will be highly motivated to rise to the occasion.   He will certainly be in their hearts and minds and I would not be at all surprised to see them dedicate their playoff drive to the young and absent pitching sensation.

We’ll Never Know Who Was Right

As there will be no real way to tell if the team was right or wrong about the Strasburg shutdown, there are a few ways the Nationals can have the last laugh here.  They need to win the World Series this year without him.  And then they will have to win one with him.

How’s that for a lofty set of goals?

It would well be worth it- not only for the sake of Washington’s historically beleaguered franchise, but also for the rich comfort of being able to tell all those ESPN blowhards and pitching coaches who have disposed and ruined so many young arms in the past, that they were wrong.  Wrong on the facts.  Wrong on the morality and the ethics.  And wrong about the humanity and the business of baseball.

Dreams on Hold


Yikes. Stephen Strasburg likely needs reconstructive “Tommy John” surgery on his elbow and will be out from 12 to 18 months. Jordan Zimmerman, who started last night for the Nats after undergoing the very same thing is evidence that there is a 90% success rate for this procedure.

But it’s a long, tough road ahead for the Nat’s young phenom who finished the season with the highest strikeout to innings ratio of any pitcher in the major leagues. He’s flying out to the West coast to get a second opinion.

The human arm was not really built for the strains of major league pitching. Young pitchers are like thoroughbreds; capable of generating so much power, but ultimately extremely fragile. The Nationals have been extremely cautious with Strasburg, making sure he’s limited to 90 or so pitches per outing; putting him on the disabled list for a shoulder strain and pulling him promptly last week when he winced in pain after throwing a change-up.

If the reaction of my colleagues in the office is any indicator, this is a stunner. No, more than that- it’s heartbreaking. All the promise and potential…on hold…while the Nationals and the Washington area at large holds its collective breath for the next year.

Ouch.