I've sat around all morning trying to find the best way to put it, but after a few cups of coffee and a ton of deep thought on a few hours sleep, I've concluded the best way to say it is just to put it all out on the table and say it bluntly, if not a bit absurdly:
To not start Stephen Strasburg on opening day 2012 is as un-American as anything in a sport like baseball could be.
I shouldn't even have to write about it. Strasburg toeing the rubber for the Washington Nationals on the first day of the 2012 season at Wrigley Field against the Chicago Cubs should be a natural occurrence. It should be treated like waking up and knowing the sun will rise, or knowing that when I take that first step out the door, the force of gravity will keep me glued to the ground rather than allow me to go sky high into the upper atmosphere. I shouldn't even have to think about it.
Opening day, Strasburg, BOOM! Nothing is more perfect, more crystalline, more pure than that situation. But here we are.
Earlier in the week Byron Kerr over at MASN wrote an article titled "Why [Jordan] Zimmermann Could Be The Opening Day Starter In 2012" where he put out the idea of switching Strasburg, an obvious No. 1 starter/ace choice, with pitcher Jordan Zimmermann, who is projected to be the No. 2 man in the 2012 rotation. He cited reasons ranging from if the Nationals did start Zimmermann on opening day, they could have Strasburg pitch more home games to start the season and delay his arrival at an eventual 160-innings limit the Nationals will possibly have him on.
Nothing against Kerr's article (which is well-written and thought out) and nothing against Zimmermann (who has made leaps and bounds since his own Tommy John surgery recovery), but I can't even wrap my mind around the idea. Why would a team not put out on the opening-day mound the best starter possible? Why would they not field the best team possible so they can win? This is not to say Zimmermann couldn't pull off an Opening Day win and deliver us a whole bunch of Cubs schadenfreude himself, but the alternative is Strasburg. Stephen effing Strasburg!
I've heard the counterpoints. Things like Zimmermann "deserves it." Things like "Zimmermann comes from the snowy, wolf-infested wilderness of Auburndale, Wisconsin so the icy winds of a Chicago opening day wouldn't affect him like it might Strasburg." I've also heard the worry over the Strasburg 160-innings limit, the need for the Nationals to conserve their young buck for a push into the playoffs and then need to remain cautious. I've heard that, yes, even though he is already putting up performances like a six-inning, four-hit, one-run, no-walk, three-strikeout, 61-pitch performance with a 99 MPH fastball and wicked change-up, he is still recovering from Tommy John surgery.
It sounds like a case of Nationals fans wanting to have cake and eat it too. Many who argue that he should be put on limits and held back in 2012 are the same people who argued against just keeping Strasburg shut down for all of 2011. So now that we have him, we are supposed to keep him in a plastic bubble? No, he needs to pitch and he needs to start being treated like "just one of the guys." The babying and protecting him from the "everydayness" of being a professional baseball player has to stop. This means stop trying to schedule him for maximum home games or special days. Just let the chips fall where they lie, just let him pitch every five days like any guy in the rotation. He needs some sense of normalcy or it is going to hurt him in the long run.
And the playoffs? The playoffs?! This team has never finished higher than fourth place in the NL East, and even this season they teeter on the brink. I know 2012 has been the targeted year for the organization to make "The Big Push" but that doesn't guarantee anything. So the worry about innings limits for Strasburg is a little overzealous thinking at this juncture. Besides, if the team wants to make the big push, why not go big and push right out of the 2012 gate?
Opening day, in the scheme of a 162-game marathon, isn't that big of a deal, but there isn't a game that means so little that means so much. Opening day is as close to the World Series as 22 teams in the Big Leagues are going to get. It is a special, tradition-filled baseball game that only happens once a season, and to start off the season right, with a win and high morale, probably can't be quantified.
You want your team to be not only winners on opening day, but a spectacle as well. You want the attention placed on your team. The Nationals haven't been too good at the "opening-day WOW Factor" since baseball returned to D.C. in 2005. Former opening-day pitchers include Livan Hernandez, John Patterson, John Lannan and yes, they even tagged Odalis Perez as opening-day starter in 2008. These guys don't build confidence in a new season necessarily, nor do they make a rival team really dread that a new season has arrived.
Jordan Zimmermann is a better choice for opening-day starter than aand perhaps he really does deserve it, no beans about it, but why go with the rib-eye when you could go for the porterhouse? The Nationals need to field the best team possible on opening day: period. Washington needs to unleash the Strasburg with no hesitation.
On April 5, 2012 Stephen Strasburg should ride into Wrigley Field on Opening Day on a white and red horse ... with hell and change up following behind him.