Frequent FJB readers know that I have a strong bias in favor of the players in baseball's ongoing labor wars. It's not that I think baseball players are underpaid. I just that I think the players have a more legitimate claim on the enormous spoils of MLB than the corporate shills hand-picked by Bud Selig for entry into the monopolists' club of baseball owners.
So it may surprise you to learn that I really don't have a problem with the Nationals' front office choosing 12 vastly inferior pitchers for the opening day roster instead of Stephen Strasburg in an blatant attempt to keep their money out of his pockets.
Let's be clear. Strasburg is the best pitcher in the Nationals organization. It's really not close. Their best chance of winning games in 2010 is to have him pitch as many innings and make as many starts as possible. If there was anything like an open, fair competition to "make the team," he would have been a lock.
There are a number of reasons he's getting sent down. Clearly, one of them is that management wants to be cautious with the long-term development of such a valuable player. By letting him ease into the life of a professional, including, for instance, pitching every five days instead of once a week, they reduce the risk of disaster, either a mental breakdown or a physical one.
But the development rationale only goes so far. Money is the reason why Strasburg, like Ryan Braun, Matt Wieters, and so many others, will almost surely wait till around Memorial Day to come up. If Strasburg started with the team on opening day and stuck, he'd become arbitration-eligible in 2013 and hit free agency in 2016. By waiting till June to call him up, the team can push all that back a year, keep the player under team control for another year, and save millions.
Now, a lot of players and agents say this manipulation of the service time clock isn't fair. And they have a point. If you're the best man for the job, you deserve to get the promotion. You'd feel the same way if your boss passed you over for a deserved promotion in order to pay you less because of some obscure provision in your contract.
But ultimately in this case I think it's more important for management to make the best decision given the rules of the game as they are now to win long-term. And clearly if they don't spend an extra $18 million over the next 3-6 years to get an extra half dozen meaningless starts for a terrible team, they will have that money for other things (whether they actually spend that money on making the team better is an issue for another post).
So I say leave Strasburg down--it's the right thing to do for the long-term success of the team on the field. However, I wouldn't blame him for grumbling a bit (not that he is), and I think fans should appreciate his willingness to take his undeserved demotion in stride.