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Stephen Strasburg has packed his bags and is leaving Viera.
Strasburg has been mostly out of sight and out of mind since. That's usually the case with pitchers recovering from Tommy John surgery, who seem to drop off the face of the earth while rehabbing in Florida or Arizona, away from the spotlight of the big leagues.
So perhaps it took people by surprise this week when the Nationals revealed Strasburg's rehab in Viera is complete and he'll begin a minor-league rehab assignment Sunday in Hagerstown. Even more surprising to some, the Nats intend to activate Strasburg off the disabled list in early September and have him make four or five big-league starts before season's end.
For those who had all but forgotten about the right-hander, these developments might have come out of the blue. Wow, just like that, Strasburg is ready to come back?
For some, this plan doesn't make sense. Like Rob Dibble. You remember him. Former Nationals broadcaster. Got fired last September for a string of ill-fated statements on the air, including his assertion on the radio that Strasburg should "suck it up" and keep pitching after that final start in Philadelphia (just days before the torn ligament was revealed).
Well, on his MLB Network Radio show yesterday, Dibble openly criticized the Nationals for bringing Strasburg back in 2011.
"What's the relevance of having a guy that could possibly get you to the postseason coming back for five starts this year?" he asked, later adding...
"There's absolutely no reason, other than to sell tickets and to put butts in the seats, to bring Stephen Strasburg back to make a few starts at the end of the season. He's too valuable, he's too talented to even think about stuff like that."
Now, I'm sure you have the same reaction I did. You're shocked -- SHOCKED! -- to learn Rob Dibble went on the air and said something ridiculous that is now drawing attention to himself.
Dibble, though, isn't the only one who has brought this subject up. His rant may have been more outrageous than most, but several people have been asking me variations of the same question for the last few weeks, as it began to become clear Strasburg would be pitching in the major leagues this season.
Why bother, they ask. Why risk sending him back out there now for meaningless games in September when you could just wait til next season?
Why? Because it absolutely makes sense and is the most prudent course of action to bring Strasburg back this year.
This isn't about putting "butts in the seats." Mike Rizzo couldn't care less about that. Trust me on this one. This is about keeping a recovering pitcher on his natural rehab schedule. It takes 12-to-18 months for the vast majority of pitchers to return from Tommy John surgery. If you hit all your marks along the way, you make it back in 12. That's what Strasburg has done. There hasn't been one notable setback along the way.
He's thrown three simulated games in Viera, totaling more than 50 pitches per outing. He's regained nearly all of his velocity. He's throwing his curveball and changeup with no issues. He's ready to go face minor leaguers in actual competition.
Minor-league rehab assignments for pitchers may not extend beyond 30 days, according to baseball's collective bargaining agreement. After those 30 days are up, the pitcher must either come off the DL and return to the majors, be shut down with a new injury or be optioned to the minors. Because Strasburg has options left, the Nationals could choose to just send him to Class AAA Syracuse at the end of his month and have him continue to pitch there.
Just one problem: The minor-league season ends Sept. 5. After that, there's nowhere for guys to go get more work than the big leagues. So if the Nationals want Strasburg to continue pitching, he'll have to do it in Washington.
And they do want him to continue pitching. They'd like him to throw a total of about 50 innings this season, no matter the level of competition. He should get about 25-to-30 innings over the next month while on rehab. That leaves another 20-to-25 innings spread out over four or five September starts.
Why are those last 20-to-25 innings important? Because they give Strasburg an opportunity to build up more arm strength, to refine his pitches, to get a better feel for the act of pitching again (something most Tommy John survivors say can take a while).
It's not as though the Nationals are going to just take the shackles off come September and let Strasburg loose, letting him throw 100 pitches over eight innings every five days. No, this is going to be an incredibly controlled environment, one in which he's restricted to the number of pitches and innings he can throw. He probably won't go more than four or five innings per start, probably won't throw more than 80 pitches in any single outing. When better to do that than in September for a team that won't be in contention for a playoff berth?
And after all that, will Strasburg be better positioned to begin 2012 at full strength? Jordan Zimmermann would certainly say yes.
How quickly we forget that Zimmermann was on a nearly identical timeline to Strasburg one year ago. True, he did begin his rehab about one month earlier and wound up making 10 minor-league starts (after he was taken off the DL and optioned to Syracuse). But then he was called back up on Aug. 26 to face the St. Louis Cardinals and proceeded to make seven starts totaling 31 innings before season's end.
Zimmermann's results were mixed. He failed to reach the fifth inning three times, allowing five runs in each of those starts. He also allowed one earned run or fewer in his four other outings, including a masterful, six-inning, one-hit, zero-walk, nine-strikeout performance Aug. 31 at Florida.
In the end, Zimmermann went 1-2 with a 4.94 ERA, but those numbers were insignificant. Nobody cared about his stats. They cared about the experience he got, the arm strength he built up and the confirmation he provided that his arm was 100 percent healthy again.
And what has Zimmermann done this season? Only established himself as one of the best young pitchers in the National League, posting a 3.12 ERA in 21 outings and reeling off a string of 11 consecutive quality starts.
You think Jordan Zimmermann is glad the Nationals let him come back to make seven starts at the end of 2010? You better believe it.
You think one year from now Stephen Strasburg will be glad the Nationals let him come back to make five starts at the end of 2011? You better believe it.
Perhaps by then, Rob Dibble will agree.