- The Washington Times - Tuesday, December 1, 2015


The Detroit Tigers deserve credit for having the guts to buck the baseball pitchfork mob that crucified the Washington Nationals for the Stephen Strasburg shutdown by putting $110 million of support behind that decision.

It’s not a popular position — showing support for Washington’s decision to protect Strasburg in 2012. Strasburg was recovering from Tommy John surgery, and the team limited his innings while it was on its way to winning the National League East division title.

The baseball mob had its pitchforks out for general manager Mike Rizzo’s decision to protect his player, and it hasn’t put them down yet, tying the team’s failure to get beyond the NL Division Series in two of the last four years and and its failure to make the postseason in the other two years to the Strasburg shutdown.

Yet the Tigers were willing to put up their own money as a show of faith in the Nationals’ shutdown of Strasburg through their signing of former Nationals pitcher Jordan Zimmermann to a five-year, $110 million contract.

The critics conveniently ignore that originally, it was the Zimmermann shutdown, not the Strasburg shutdown. Zimmermann, after Tommy John surgery, had been under an innings limit in 2011, one year before Strasburg’s. The point was the same — to protect the future of the player. The difference was that the Strasburg shutdown happened in the glare of a division title and the postseason. Critics who weren’t paying attention when they shut down Zimmermann in 2011 said they should not have afforded Strasburg the same protection and allowed him to pitch in the postseason.

The difference also was that Strasburg’s agent was the lightning rod known as Scott Boras. Most fans couldn’t tell you who Zimmermann’s agent was, but they knew Boras was Strasburg’s agent, and argued that the agent was dictating how the Nationals should handle Strasburg — even though he was not connected in any way to the same shutdown decision the year before with Zimmermann.

Let’s say, for the sake of argument, that the shutdown was Boras’ idea. Isn’t the intention — and the result — the same? To protect the player? And does anyone doubt that Boras is one of the smartest, most knowledgeable minds in the game?

That wasn’t the case, though. The idea that Boras controls Rizzo is ludicrous. If one is looking for a connection between Boras and the Nationals, it is owner Ted Lerner, not Rizzo.

Critics ignore that in Strasburg’s last five starts before he was shut down, he gave up 13 runs in 26 innings. Nevermind that Strasburg had pitched a total of 147 professional innings to that point — 55 in the minors and 92 in the majors. He had pitched more innings in 2012 — nearly 160 innings — than he had in his professional career.

But it was a decision of prevention, something that can never be proven, so the shutdown is still vilified — with the Nationals’ crime of being “arrogant” enough to believe they had a plan to protect their young pitchers moving forward from the surgery. It’s a convenient, easy target — to project some other kind of outcome for Washington in the NLDS in 2012 than losing to the St. Louis Cardinals in five games if Strasburg had pitched ­— because it can’t be disproved.

If that is the case, then it is certainly fair game to project some other kind of outcome for Zimmermann if the Nationals hadn’t protected him with an innings limit — an outcome that ended differently than him getting paid $110 million on Monday.

“We love this guy,” Tigers general manager Al Avila told reporters. “We feel like he is a top of the rotation guy, a horse on the mound who will give you 200 innings.”

Would Zimmermann have been able to give anyone 200 innings in 2016 and beyond if the Nationals hadn’t limited his comeback year from elbow ligament surgery?

Since his surgery, Zimmermann had started 162 games and pitched 1,002 innings with a 67-45 record. He hasn’t missed a start in four years. He has earned $32 million and now will be paid an additional $110 million.

Strasburg, since his surgery, has started 120 games, pitched 709 innings, and earned $25 million. When he becomes a free agent at the end of this season, he, like Zimmermann, will likely get paid, because some general manager will believe, whether he will admit it or not, that the Nationals protected Strasburg just like they did Zimmermann.

⦁ Thom Loverro is co-host of “The Sports Fix,” noon to 2 p.m. daily on ESPN 980 and espn980.com.

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