On August 21st, Stephen Strasburg trudged off the mound in Philadelphia in obvious pain.

That will be the last we see of the young phenom until at least the end of 2011.

Today, the Washington Nationals announced that Strasburg has a torn ulnar collateral ligament in his right arm, and will need Tommy John surgery.

With a 12 to 18 month recovery timetable, this appears devastating for the franchise. Although Tommy John surgery has become commonplace in recent years for pitchers, there is always a risk involved with such a major procedure. Plus, many will fret over the possibility that Stephen Strasburg will never be the same dominant pitcher following the surgery.

All are legitimate concerns, and the Nationals have to be even more crushed from an attendance perspective. The National were a poor draw in Washington from the start, but Strasburg was making the team exciting for the first time in the franchise’s short history. The D.C. area was taking notice, and for the first time, it looked like the Nationals might actually be able to build a fanbase.

However, in some ways, this could prove beneficial to the Nationals from a long-term perspective.


The Nationals Now

Despite the hype surrounding Strasburg, he could not change the fact that the Nationals are simply a bad team.

Washington has only one other starting pitcher, Livan Hernandez, with an ERA below 4.00. Not exactly a long-term piece of the franchise’s core.

Ryan Zimmerman is one of the best players in baseball, and Adam Dunn is a stellar hitter, but beyond those two the Nationals have almost nothing. Aside from Strasburg, Hernandez, Zimmerman, and Dunn, only the currently-injured Josh Willingham put up a WAR over 2.0 this season according to Fangraphs.

And while a few overly enthusiastic prognosticators may have called the 2011 Nationals with Strasburg a sleeper playoff team, the chances of such a flawed squad making a run next season would have been unlikely at best.

Things will look far different in 2012.


Talent on the Way

Former top prospect Jordan Zimmerman recently returned from his own Tommy John surgery. He had a very promising rookie season and he could be a borderline ace by 2012.

Wilson Ramos and Derek Norris are both highly regarded catching prospects. While neither is having a strong 2011, the chances are good that at least one of them will pan out.

Drew Storen is the future closer. Shortstop prospect Danny Espinosa has hit 22 home runs this season, and is currently in AAA. By 2012, he could be a fixture at middle infield for Washington.

Ryan Zimmerman, already one of the best position players in the National League, will be 28 and in his prime.

And of course, there’s Bryce Harper, essentially the position player version of Strasburg. Only 17 years old now, he won’t hit the majors until mid-2011 at the absolute earliest. But he appears destined to be a power-hitting corner outfielder for years to come.

Strasburg will return to a team likely filled with blue chip talent. Plus, Washington management has shown a willingness to spend money, proven by their offers to high-profile free agents such as Mark Teixeira.

After seeing what Strasburg can do, free agents will be more likely to sign in the nation’s capital, even with his injury.


Missing a Year

But what does this have anything to do with Strasburg missing a season? He could pitch next year, deal with a poor team, and then lead the rotation of a playoff contender in 2012. How could this injury have any benefit at all for the Nationals?

Poor mechanics and wasted bullets.

Ever since Strasburg broke onto the scene, he has been criticized by some for his “Inverted W” pitching motion and poor timing. After the news today, it appears those critics had a point.

Also, pitchers that throw in the high 90s have a tendency to break down. The arm was just not built for that kind of velocity, unless your name is Nolan Ryan.

Unless Strasburg gets lucky or changes his throwing motion, he seems destined for a short but dominant career.

So why waste 200 of those innings pitching for a team with no chance of making a playoff run?

Strasburg now can sit out a season, wait for the youth in Washington to develop, and return to an actual contender.

Sure, the fans miss out on watching a great pitcher for a season. But for Washington, what does it really mean? The difference between winning 72 and 78 games?

A true disaster would have been Tommy John surgery in 2012 or 2013, when the Nationals were on the verge of making their first legitimate run at the postseason.

Of course, this situation is not positive for the Nationals, and the risk following surgery remains. But if Strasburg was going to need Tommy John, this was the best time for him to have it.

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