By Dave Wischnowsky –
(CBS) Earlier this season, longtime Cubs pitcher Kerry Wood called it a career at the age of 35 after compiling an 86-75 record, 1,582 strikeouts – and 16 trips to the disabled list during his 14 injury-riddled seasons.
Meanwhile, out in Rhode Island, a 31-year-old Mark Prior is still trying to make a comeback – as a reliever – with the Triple-A Pawtucket Red Sox following two shoulder surgeries and three failed stints with the Padres, Rangers and the Orange County Flyers of the Independent League.
With shades of 2003 still haunting their dreams, every Cubs fan thinks about “what could have been” over the past decade had Wood and Prior not broken down time and time and, well, time again. But could something have really been different if the Cubs and manager-turned-punching-bag Dusty Baker had handled their one-time pitching wunderkinds in a different way?
Like, say, the way the Washington Nationals are planning to handle Stephen Strasburg right now?
Currently, the Nats are hot topic of debate in baseball circles due to their plans to shelve their 24-year-old ace for the season after Strasburg – who is in his first season after retuning from “Tommy John” elbow surgery – reaches 160 to 180 innings. He’s now at 139 1/3 after Wednesday’s victory over the Giants during which he struck out seven and walked four in six innings.
The Strasburg decision has been made by the Nationals brass in spite of the fact that he is a dominating 14-5 with a 2.91 ERA for the season and that Washington currently has a 4.5-game lead in the National League East.
On Wednesday, the Washington Post reported that sports medicine doctors, including leading authorities on Tommy John surgery, have said they aren’t surprised by the National’s decision to end their star pitcher’s season so early. I am, however, considering how well the team is playing, how well Strasburg is pitching and that Washington – which lost 90-plus games five times in its first seven seasons – is in line to reach the postseason for the first time ever.
Those same doctors also did acknowledge to the Washington Post that there’s no consensus on whether the Nationals’ taking such an extreme step with Strasburg is necessary.
And, really, who can know?
After all, it’s entirely possible that Prior and Wood might have benefited greatly from fewer innings pitched during their early years with the Cubs. But it’s also possible that the duo was just meant to break down, as some athletes unfortunately seem inclined to do.
In early May, the White Sox announced that they were moving 23-year-old hotshot Chris Sale to the bullpen to keep him “healthy and strong.” A week later, however, after an MRI came back clean and Sale lobbied general manager Kenny Williams to move him back into the rotation, he became a starter again for the White Sox.
Today, Sale has a 14-3 record and 2.60 ERA for Robin Ventura’s division-leading club. It’s hard to imagine where the Sox might be without him – or what they might do without his arm in the rotation if they reach the playoffs. Clearly, the Sox are far better heading down the stretch with Sale than they would be without.
Having watched the downfalls of Wood and Prior, I’m all for handling young pitchers with wisdom. And I’m all for limiting the number of bullets they fire with their prized arms as they adjust to a Major League workload. However, I’m also all for winning teams managing their seasons with wisdom, as well.
And demoting or completely shutting down your best pitcher – who is looking healthy – in the thick of a pennant race isn’t wise. I get what the Nats are trying to do, but playoff-worthy baseball seasons don’t come along every year. At least, a team shouldn’t expect that they will, and you do need to take advantage of them when you can.
My buddy Jared, a former college baseball player and one-time pitcher, agrees. Last month, when rumors about Strasburg’s innings limit had begun to emerge, Jared wrote to me: “Why don’t these teams hold back their pitchers and start their spring training later in the year and use the minor leagues as their spring training starts or use extended spring training to get their work in?
“Are the Nationals really going to shut down Strasburg if they make the playoffs? Same with Sale? It makes no logical sense to shut them down early when you could easily start them June 1 or whenever to limit their innings. Then you have them for the playoffs.”
Hindsight, of course, is 20/20. But in the case of the Nationals, if they were considering an innings limit for Strasburg, they had to have known that well before the season. And with such durability concerns, it would have been much smarter for the team to sit Strasburg for the first six weeks of the season, rather than the last six. The White Sox could have used the same tactics with Sale, rather then having toyed with the idea of plopping him in the pen.
As contending teams observe the Strasburg saga this season, I would hope that, if anything, they learn to pre-plan much better with their young arms in order to make sure they have their top pitchers on the mound when they need them the most – in October, not April.
If the Cubs could have a do-over with Prior and Wood and chose to slash innings from their early seasons, I’d tell them exactly the same.
Cut early, so you have the best shot to cash in late.
If nothing else, Dave Wischnowsky is an Illinois boy. Raised in Bourbonnais, educated at the University of Illinois and bred on sports in the Land of Lincoln, he now resides on Chicago’s North Side, just blocks from Wrigley Field. Formerly a reporter and blogger for the Chicago Tribune, Dave currently writes a syndicated column, The Wisch List, which you can check out via his blog at http://www.wischlist.com. Follow him on Twitter @wischlist and read more of his CBS Chicago blog entries here.