- The Washington Times - Wednesday, August 3, 2011

ANALYSIS/OPINION

Remember how Stephen Strasburg sent shock waves through baseball and became a huge gate attraction last year, making his team a national story in the process?

Remember how everything was swell until Strasburg threw that fateful pitch against Philadelphia on Aug. 21, suffering a season-ending injury that required Tommy John surgery? Remember how depression ensued and interest in the Washington Nationals crashed worse than the housing market, as the team limped to a 93-loss season?

We’ll always have those memories, good and bad. But if everything goes according to plan, a bunch more are headed this way within a month. And this time, Strasburg won’t be the only story on the mound.

The Nats’ rotation that performed so brilliantly in the first half will be barely recognizable at the end. The transformation has begun already, with Chien-Ming Wang and Ross Detwiler replacing Jason Marquis (traded) and Tom Gorzelanny (moved to the bullpen).

But those moves are just appetizers, preparing us for the entree — Strasburg — and a pair of promising sides — minor-leaguers Tom Milone and Brad Peacock. Manager Davey Johnson hopes to slide Strasburg into Jordan Zimmermann’s spot once the latter reaches his team-imposed limit of 160 innings, probably after four more starts.

“I’ve kind of flipped Zimmermann and Stras in the same boat,” Johnson said Wednesday, before the Nats’ 6-4 loss to visiting Atlanta. “When [Zimmermann‘s] done, I’ll swap him out and Stras will start.”

Strasburg is poised to make his first minor-league rehabilitation start as early as Sunday, with Class-A Hagerstown. The Nats have three off-days this month, which would allow them to synchronize Zimmermann’s and Strasburg’s schedules. That means Strasburg could return to the majors during a 10-game homestand beginning Sept. 2 - if not sooner.

“They’re two different animals and each have their own time frame,” Johnson said. “But I figure there isn’t going to be much of a drop-off in that slot.”

Considering his scintillating rookie campaign, with a 2.91 ERA and 12.2 strikeouts per nine innings, Strasburg will garner the most attention of any Nats’ hurler this season, rightfully so. The Nats are making a wise move in bringing him back now and getting his return out of the way, instead of waiting until next season, when his lengthy absence would receive even more scrutiny.

We figure Strasburg will be as good as new, just like Zimmermann has been since adjusting to his surgically-repaired elbow. But the real intrigue will center on Milone and Peacock, who could vie for the rotation next season. “I think they’re both pretty ready,” Johnson said.

Finding starts for them means another pitcher has to be dropped. Wang, making just his second start Wednesday after more than two years away following shoulder surgery, fell to 0-2 with a 6.00 ERA. With free agency looming after the season, he doesn’t necessarily fit into the long-term plan, though the Nats might invite him to camp for a look-see at a nominal salary.

Detwiler, the sixth overall pick in the 2007 draft, is another candidate to lose starts to Milone and Peacock. The Nats want to look at him (and let others look, too), but it’s not as if he has no major league experience. It’s more important to give Milone and Peacock their first taste and then sort out the rotation in spring training.

Johnson has no problem balancing the desire to win games with the desire to see young pitchers. He said the two aren’t mutually exclusive when done correctly.

“We’re developing players, and a byproduct of good development should be winning,” he said. “It’s not like we’re rebuilding. We’re developing, and there’s a big difference.”

Story Continues →