With Strasburg out, Nats owe fans a reload for 2011

The best pitcher in the National League this season has been on that same plane ride west, with his arm in tatters, to see Lew Yocum, the doc who re-strings ligaments. Cardinals ace Chris Carpenter was a little older and maybe a little wiser than Stephen Strasburg is now when he had the surgery in 2007, but he knows what Strasburg is going through, and knows how hard the rehab is going to be. And he also knows that the nexus of surgery and elbows in the 21st century produces great second acts in baseball.

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Long story short

Climb off the ledge, Nats Nation. They can rebuild him.

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"I came back," Carpenter said Saturday, "and I felt good."

The best hitter in baseball, so good he doesn't even want to discuss the possibility that he could win the Triple Crown this season -- something that hasn't been done in 43 years, and not in the National League in 73 years -- started his weekend in Washington chatting up Bryce Harper, the Nats' Next Superstar, on Thursday night, and continued it Friday night by consoling Strasburg, who had asked if he could spare a few minutes.

"One thing that I told him," Albert Pujols said Saturday, "is you need to be excited about this: back in the day, they didn't know how to deal with this injury. Now, guys come off of this injury and they can even be better. I mean, look at Carp and his career. Look at Josh Johnson and (Tim) Hudson. It's not like guys want to have that surgery so they can be better . . . but if he takes his time off, and the time that is needed, he'll be back with full engines."

Climb off the ledge, Nats Nation.

They can rebuild him.

They have the technology.

They have the ability to rebuild Thor's Hammer.

Strasburg carried many of your hopes -- and fears -- about where this franchise is going on his plane ride to California over the weekend, to have Yocum take a look at his blown-out elbow. The silver lining in the metaphorical cloud that has settled over Nationals Park is this: If Strasburg is like 90 percent or so of pitchers, he'll be out at least a year, maybe 18 months, and then he should – should -- be able to pitch again with an elbow that shouldn't give him any more trouble. That means at the worst, he should be right on track to take the ball on Opening Day 2012 and pick up his career where it left off. He will still only be 23 then.

By contrast, Carpenter was 32 when had his Tommy John surgery in July 2007, after pitching only once that season. He missed the rest of that year and most of 2008, returning late in the season to pitch in three games. That second offseason, after 2008, was key, Carpenter said Saturday, allowing him to have a normal winter where he could work on pitching instead of rehab. And he came back with a vengeance, finishing second in voting for the National League Cy Young award last season with a 17-4 record, a 2.24 ERA and 1.01 WHIP.

This season, he's been even better, leading the NL in starts (28) and winning percentage (.778). He's tied for the NL lead in wins with 17, and is third in the league in innings pitched (190.1). He has five complete games. He is now 35 years old, and pitching like he's 25.

"I was okay with it," said Carpenter, who also had right shoulder surgery in 2003. "I just knew my elbow hurt and I couldn't pitch with it the way it was. I was okay with it, I think, probably because I had been through my shoulder and missed that time earlier. “I knew one morning if I woke up and my elbow didn't feel good, it wasn't the end of the world. Because it's a process. There's a reason why it takes a year to get back. You just keep doing the right things and trusting the people around you, and the medical people around you that know what they're doing. You know in that year you're going to be okay."

But the immediate issue for the Nationals is not 2012. It's 2011.

Whatever plan Mike Rizzo had for the offseason needs to be changed. And the Lerners need to approve those changes. True, it's a cheesy hallmark of sports talk radio -- and sports columnists -- to spend someone else's money. Just pass the Brie and listen up.

The Nats now need at least one frontline starter next season. No more gambling that someone else's pitchers (Jason Marquis or Scott Olsen) will come back from injury or that your own prospects (John Lannan or Craig Stammen) will turn into something special. And it should go without saying that re-signing Adam Dunn has gone from a priority to a necessity. I believed that when Dunn was rolling; I believed it when he was slumping; I still believe it after Dunn's hot weekend against St. Louis, and I certainly believe he needs to be around next year now that Strasburg won’t be.

My suspicion is that Rizzo and Stan Kasten would be loath to trade some of their young prospects for a starter even if they could. So the Nats would need to dip into a less-than-dynamic free agent pool to add that pitcher. That might mean overpaying for a guy like the Dodgers' Ted Lilly, maybe Colorado's Jorge de la Rosa. So be it. Things have changed.

Texas's Cliff Lee, who turns 32 today, is the best of the free agent bunch, by far. Would he come here, when he could sign with the Yankees or Red Sox or some other team with deeper pockets? Almost certainly not. But why not offer him $45 million for three years to be sure? The Nats' chances of getting Lee probably aren't any worse than their chances of getting Mark Teixeira two years ago, but Washington took the shot anyway. With their new park less than a year old, the Nats needed to show their fans that they were serious about putting a representative product on the field. Now, they need to do it again. It's not ideal and it may not make the best financial sense. But it didn't make financial sense for this city to fork over $600 million to build a stadium for the Lerners, either.

The Nats are a month or so from completing another horrid season on South Capitol Street. It's been marginally better than the last two embarrassing versions, but when your most consistent starter is 87-year-old Livan Hernandez -- whom the Nats have smartly signed up for next season already -- you have problems. (Amazing that the guy who looks like he never refuses his turn in the buffet line is the guy that never gets hurt and is the only guy who gets people out every fifth day.) The bullpen is better, but it’s burned out after months of fifth- and sixth-inning appearances bailing out underperforming starters.

Ryan Zimmerman is a rock at the plate and at third, and a pleasure to watch. But most of the young talent that is to grow with him is either working back from injuries (Jordan Zimmermann, Derek Norris), somewhere in the minor league pipeline (Danny Espinosa, Wilson Ramos), or going through the growing pains of their first couple of seasons with the big club (Roger Bernadina, Ian Desmond, Drew Storen). There's not a fully-formed young stud to go with the 25-year-old Zimmerman. Soon? Yes. But not now.

And without Strasmas to celebrate? Even an OK season from their ace -- 10 to 15 wins, a likely All-Star appearance and all of those glorious strikeouts -- could have whetted most fans' appetites, and maybe kept Washington within sniffing distance of .500. Fifteen or so starts at home could have paid for Harper's signing bonus and a lot of a new contract for Adam Dunn, if the analysis from CNBC's Darren Rovell is to be believed (and I believe it, because Rovell is the best at what he does). But what on earth does the Sales Department sell now? Maybe JZimm is back? Come watch Espinosa take the cutoff throw?

I know Rizzo strongly believes in his plan to rebuild the organization from the top down, believes in his scouts, believes in the kids that are coming. But there's a gaping hole in that bridge to the young guns. Asking you to pay big league prices for sub-big league performance for a fourth straight season is unacceptable. The payroll is rising, slowly. But don't get it twisted. The Nats owe you, not the other way around.

"I think that ballclub over there, in two or three years, they're going to beat the team to beat in the East, I'm telling you right now," Pujols said. "They have some pretty special talent. And when those two kids, Bryce and Steve, . . . and with Zimmermann, the young arm, and [Ryan Zimmerman], look out. They're hungry."

If they're hungry, Nationals fans are starving. Feed them.

David Aldridge is the NBA Insider for TNT and NBA-TV, and will be a regular contributor to TBD.com.

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