Stephen Strasburg Ready to Take Next Step in Rehab

Posted by Dave Nichols | Tuesday, August 02, 2011 | , , | 0 comments »

According to Mark Zuckerman this morning, citing a report by Florida Today writer Mark DeCotis, Washington Nationals pitcher Stephen Strasburg threw three innings (51 pitches) of a simulated game at the Nats training facility in Viera, FL against the Nats entry in the Gulf Coast League.  DeCotis, according to Zuckerman, reported that none of the entry-level players could get the ball out of the infield against the rehabbing righty.

Nats manager Davey Johnson said the other day that should today's session go as planned, Strasburg was likely to start a minor league rehab assignment as quickly as this weekend.  If the Nats pitch Strasburg on four days rest, that would mean a start at a minor league park, presumably somewhere near you, on Sunday, August 7.

Both Low-A Potomac and Double-A Harrisburg are on the road Sunday, so the possible scenario would play out in Hagerstown, where we've already seen Ryan Zimmerman and Chien-Ming Wang make rehab starts this summer, in addition to the media frenzy that surrounded Bryce Harper when he started the season with the Suns.

Strasburg's recovery and rehab is the single most important aspect of the Nationals 2011 season.  Sure, the development of the younger players on the Major League roster is also vital to the long-term success of the franchise.  But it pales in comparison to getting the hopefully future ace of the rotation healthy and back on a big league mound.

The Nationals have developed so much of their long-term plan around Strasburg, 23, being the anchor of their starting rotation.  They envision him being their version of Roy Halladay.  Along with Jordan Zimmermann, 25, who has progressed from his own Tommy John surgery about as well as can be expected, they should form the nucleus of a strong starting rotation for the Nationals for years to come.  It's a lot easier to find mid-rotation starters when you have a legitimate 1-2 punch, something the Nats have never really had since their move to D.C. in 2005.

But it all depends on Strasburg's health.  Zimmermann has had an almost flawless recovery and rehab from Tommy John surgery, returning to a big league mound almost exactly one year off surgery last August.  This season, he has exceeded expectations with his results, being downright dominant at times, pitching to a 6-9 record, but with a 3.12 ERA and 1.101 WHIP, with an outstanding  4.45 K/BB ratio in 21 starts.  His team-imposed innings limit quickly approaches though, as he has about 28 innings left to reach the 160 inning max prescription.

Strasburg will go through the same program that Zimmermann has in his return.  Once Strasburg is sent on a rehab assignment, he'll have 30 days in the minor leagues to start games, building his arm strength and gaining confidence in his arm once again against live batters.  As with Zimmermann, the radar gun speeds should return fairly quickly, but it's the command and control that truly separates Strasburg from the other hard throwers, and that touch won't fully return (hopefully) for 12-18 months after he starts his rehab.

If Strasburg indeed starts Sunday for Hagerstown, his 30-day rehab assignment would end Tuesday, Sept. 6.  Pitching on an every fifth day schedule, he'd be slated to start Sunday, Sept. 4.  That is one year and one day out from his surgery date.  The Nationals enjoy a 10-game homestand from Sept. 2-11, so it's possible -- possible -- Strasburg could make his long-awaited return during that homestand just at the time they'll be shutting Zimmermann down for the season.

The dates could vary due to any number of possibilities, but the bottom line is that Strasburg remains on schedule in his rehab, following the same pattern Zimmermann did last season.  The Nats will not rush Strasburg in any manner, but it's becoming clearer that if he does not have a setback in his rehab, we will indeed see the second coming of Strasburg this season at Nats Park.