With Ovechkin Gone Will Strasburg Come Sooner?

published April 29, 2010

The fortunes of one team in a city have nothing to do with what happens to the others in different sports – except when they do.

Don’t believe me?  Watch what happens in the next few weeks in Washington.

The Washington Capitals completed an unprecedented fall last night, losing to the Montreal Canadiens, 2-1, in game seven on home ice.  It was the first time that a team seeded eighth had won three straight elimination games to close out a series against its conference’s top team.

It’s been a rough few months for the Caps’ star center Alex Ovechkin.  First the Russian Olympic hockey team failed to reach the medal games, losing 7-3 to Canada in the quarterfinals in Vancouver as Ovechkin was held scoreless.  Then the Capitals were bounced from the Stanley Cup playoffs in the first round for the second time in three years.

Ovechkin has won back-to-back Hart Trophies as Most Valuable Player, and despite missing ten games this season ranked first in the league in even-strength goals and shots on goal, and second in scoring.  But at age 24, after five years in the NHL, he has won just one playoff series, which is unusual among hockey’s all-time greats.  It’s not unprecedented, however: Mario Lemieux didn’t win his second playoff round until he was 25.

Washington had the best record in the league by a comfortable margin in the regular season, but the team faces another summer of questions about its ability to play enough defense to advance in the playoffs.  Fifteen teams allowed fewer goals this season than the Capitals; all of Ovechkin’s offensive brilliance won’t matter unless he gets more help on the back line.

With the Capitals out of the way, the District and its media will turn their attention to the surprising Nationals and the inevitable question following the team: When will they call up Stephen Strasburg?

The Nats are 12-10, the first time they’ve been over .500 this late in the season since their first year in D.C.  As the Mets have just demonstrated, one quick hot spell can move you from the bottom to the top of the division in a few short days.

Washington’s front office decided in the spring that they would send Strasburg to Harrisburg in the AA Eastern League to get his feet wet in pro baseball for a while.  They felt it was an important step in his development, a necessary learning experience.  “This is a prized asset,” general manager Mike Rizzo told the Washington Post.  “We can’t be short-sighted.  We have to look at what’s best for the organization long term.  That’s dictated by what’s best for Stephen Strasburg’s development.”

As developments have developed, he’s developing just fine.  In his four starts, he’s used his 99 mph fastball and 93 mph sinker to go 3-0 with a 0.52 ERA, allowing seven hits and one earned run in 17.1 innings, striking out 23 while walking just three.  In nine spring training innings for the big-league club, Strasburg allowed just two runs, struck out twelve, got fourteen ground-ball outs and one infield popup – no one hit an outfield fly against him.

The Nationals may benefit financially in the long term by letting Strasburg burn up the bushes for a while longer.  Arbitration eligibility and free agency are based on a player’s major-league service; Strasburg’s salary is set for this season and two more, but his eligibility for arbitration after that will depend on how many days he spends on the major-league roster this year.  Rizzo insists the decision on bringing him to the majors will not be a financial decision – no, of course not – but “what’s best for the organization long term” and “what’s best for Stephen Strasburg’s development” may already be at odds.

Strasburg may have burst into prominence quickly, but he’s not a kid.  He’ll be 22 in July; at his current age, Clayton Kershaw had made 53 major-league starts, Felix Hernandez had a 30-25 major league record, and Dwight Gooden was 54-17 and had won a Cy Young Award.  Strasburg averaged nearly 7.1 innings per start in his final year at San Diego State; major-league innings involve higher stress, but if he fails to dominate that will put a natural limit on his workload anyway.

With only winless D.C. United to compete for the capital’s sporting attention, the drumbeat to bring up the rookie will grow stronger.  The young man who earned the nickname “Jesus” this spring – because that’s what everyone says upon first seeing his stuff – may not have to wait much longer to terrorize the National League.

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