Money major factor in Nationals shutting down Stephen Strasburg

(Photo credit: Howard Smith, US Presswire)

The debate over whether the Washington Nationals would use their best player in the postseason ended Saturday when manager Davey Johnson confirmed that the club had pulled the plug on pitcher Stephen Strasburg‘s season.

It was all about the money.

The shutdown had been a season-long debate featuring Johnson; Nats general manager Mike Rizzo; his agent, Scott Boras; and the medical field stressing the need to limit Strasburg’s innings following Tommy John surgery on his pitching elbow. Since the operation, Strasburg worked 24 innings last September and 159 1/3 this year.

Shutdown reaction: Ex-hurler Kaat sends Strasburg an open letter

On the other side of the debate are many DC baseball fans who long for the city to win its first World Series since 1924 and play its first postseason game since the old Senators won the 1933 American League pennant. Those fans — and presumably Nats management and Boras — are painfully aware how quickly things change. Did anyone really believe the Philadelphia Phillies would pack it in this season, just a year removed from boasting one of the top pitching rotations ever? And remember, on Labor Day 2011, the Boston Red Sox were considered prime World Series contenders.

So the Nats will play in October without their biggest star and pitching ace, who by all accounts is healthy. For Boras, it’s about the money, or so he told the Mike Wise of The Washington Post in an Aug. 17 column.

“I told Rizzo, ‘I’ll be honest with you, you got a guy who is a No. 1 pitcher. There are only a few of them in the game. He’s worth $30 million dollars a year. You have four years that cost you $120 million dollars. Because of the reserve system, you only have to pay $40 million dollars. So you have an $80 million dollar decision of profit — in an asset that you have under your control. You better look at it that way.’ “

But Boras wasn’t done, telling the Nats, according to Wise, that “with your insurance coverage, if you go against medical recommendations, are you liable for negligence as an organization?”

Asked by Wise if that was a threat of legal consequence, Boras answered, “The fact of the matter is, if you are forcing your player to pitch and disregarding medical doctors, are you going to be able to live with that legally and ethically?”

Johnson said during the shutdown announcement that the “media hype … has been unbelievable” surrounding a mentally tapped out Strasburg, who had been scheduled to make one final 2012 start. “After (Friday’s) start, we just figured that mentally and physically, Stephen looked like he was fatigued,” Rizzo told The Washington Post.

Strasburg allowed the Miami Marlins five runs in three innings to finish with a 15-6 record, a 3.16 ERA and, as of now, fourth in the majors with 197 strikeouts.

Those are excellent numbers, but will they satisfy Nats fans if the team, which began play Saturday with a baseball-best 85-53 record, fails without its top player next month? If Washington falls short, the high-pitched media buzz that Johnson cited will only increase.

— Bob Kimball

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