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Nationals taking safe road with Strasburg but is it right one?

The Washington Nationals believe they are doing everything right, short of bubble wrap and clubhouse feng shui, to keep pitching prospect Stephen Strasburg healthy. The truth is they know nothing for certain. Raising a major league pitcher involves more guesswork and fear than any club would publicly admit. The fear is that when a pitcher breaks down -- and it typically is a matter of when, not if -- the club will be blamed for being "wrong" about how it used the pitcher.

Strasburg will make his eighth minor league start tonight, leaving him on track to make his major league debut on or about June 4 in Washington. The Nationals have yet to allow him to throw 90 pitches in a game. Here are his pitch counts: 82, 32, 68, 64, 79, 65, 79. The kid is 6-foot-4, 220 pounds, throws with clean mechanics and almost never encounters a "stress" inning in the minors, and yet he gets treated with care typically reserved for Ming vases and royal family members.

The Nationals have made certain that nobody can blame them for overusing Strasburg. But are they underusing him? Has all the sturm und drang over former Cubs wunderkinds Mark Prior and Kerry Wood, as well as the 1980 Oakland staff a generation before them, caused teams to slow pitchers' development to a crawl?

Strasburg is the most hyped and closely watched pitching prospect in the history of baseball, courtesy of this age when information continues to flow faster, in greater volume and across more platforms. And that makes the Nationals' Strasburg Plan the most closely watched pitching development program in the history of baseball. It could be either a new template for the industry or the turning of the pendulum when it comes to the "saving bullets" philosophy -- that baseball has gone too far to protect its pitchers.

What is most interesting about the Strasburg Plan is that concurrently the Cincinnati Reds are running an entirely different development plan with Mike Leake, their base model of Strasburg. Leake, 22, and Strasburg, who turns 22 in July, both pitched in major college programs, both were drafted last year in the first round, both signed too late to pitch in affiliated pro baseball last year and both went through their first spring training this year. They were born only eight months apart.

And yet with Leake the Reds have taken what is now a novel approach: They are actually letting him pitch and help them win major league games. Leake made the club out of spring training as one of the team's five best starters. (Strasburg was clearly the best pitcher in the Nationals' camp, but earned a ticket to Class A ball.) And here are Leake's pitch counts: 106, 99, 93, 105, 100, 91, 97.

For those of you scoring at home, the pitch count blotter looks like this after seven starts for both Leake and Strasburg:

Leake: 691 major league pitches.

Strasburg: 469 minor league pitches.

Why should they be treated so differently? Are the Nationals "smarter" than the Reds? Is Strasburg physically more fragile than Leake? No. The answer has more to do with perceived value, like your driving habits were you to drive a new exotic sports car through a speed-trap laden freeway or a rental sedan down an empty stretch of highway.

(Of course, don't rule out the impact of starting the service time clock of a player. Teams often delay a future star's promotion until June to delay both his arbitration rights and his his free agency by one year.)

The Nationals believe they are doing the right thing with Strasburg, but no more than how the Reds believe they are doing the right thing with Leake and no more than how the Cubs believed they were doing the right thing with Prior and Wood. Who really knows? Does anybody have actual research to determine that Strasburg should be throwing only 79 pitches in his seventh start and that 100 pitches would be foolhardy and risky? These are arbitrary pitching thresholds based largely on fear -- fear of injury and fear of criticism.

Years ago a major league club commissioned a study on the evolution of this idea that pitchers should throw less in order to stay healthy. The sabermetrician charged with the study found that Billy Martin was the start of it all. He was the manager of the '80 Athletics, and when his young pitchers (like Mike Norris and Rick Langford) promptly broke down after heavy workloads, no club wanted the harsh public criticism and blame Martin bore.

Over the years, workloads for pitchers, especially prospects, generally have trended downward. For instance, CC Sabathia made his major league debut at age 20 in 2001. By the time he was the age Strasburg is today, he had made 75 starts and had thrown 7,435 pitches in the big leagues.

Here is one look at the shortening of the rope given young pitching stars. It's a list of six highly publicized young pitching stars in the past 12 years, and how many pitches they threw in each of their first seven big-league starts.

Now take a look at how many times they were allowed to throw 120 pitches in a game in their first big-league season:

Wood threw 133 pitches in his penultimate regular season start in 1998, leaving for a pinch hitter in the ninth with a 5-2 lead. His manager? Jim Riggleman, the current manager of the Nationals and the man with the keys to this exotic sports car called Strasburg.

Times have changed. If Riggleman let Strasburg throw 133 pitches this year, he might be fired the next morning. It's more likely that in today's climate of you-can't-be-too-careful, Riggleman will pull Strasburg out of games with fewer than 100 pitches even though he might be dominating and not laboring.

The Nationals are being extra careful with the rarity that might as well be known as Stephen Stradivarius. So tonight Strasburg still is a Syracuse Chief and will be pitching in Rochester, N.Y., against the Rochester Red Wings (who four days ago saw Reds prospect Aroldis Chapman) with another strict pitch limit. Two days later, Leake (4-0) will make his eighth major league start, and Reds manager Dusty Baker will hope he throws 100 pitches or so.

Strasburg's Triple-A start Tuesday will be covered by several national media outlets -- including SI.com -- as well as (on a tape delay) the regional television network that carries Nationals games. Particular attention in the reports will be given to his pitch count. The Red Wings will sell Strasburg T-shirts. His previous start was covered with live look-ins by The MLB Network. His May 7 start in Syracuse drew 13,766 people, the largest crowd in 124 years of Syracuse professional baseball, and more people than turned out to watch the Nationals themselves in Washington on April 19 and 21.

And that's why there never has been a rookie pitcher like Strasburg. Others have had similar stuff: Roger Clemens, Dwight Gooden, Ben McDonald, Prior, Justin Verlander, etc. But no one has undergone a more public, more closely watched minor league development than Strasburg. He is the Times Square of pitching development, the brightly-lit, crowded intersection of how the game is covered and how it is taught. And when his major league debut finally does arrive, it will be New Year's Day. The whole of the baseball world is watching.

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