Just when you thought the Pirates had the most heartbreaking end to their season, the Washington Nationals swooped in to take the top prize.
The Nats blew a two run lead in the ninth inning by surrendering four runs to the St. Louis Cardinals. The game five loss ended Washington's incredible run and first postseason appearance since moving from Montreal in 2005. Entering the playoffs with the most wins in baseball, the divisional series loss has to be considered premature; however, given the amount of young talent, as well as a large market and wealthy owner (Ted Lerner), the Nationals will surely reach the playoffs multiple times for the next 5-10 years.
While the Nationals are a larger market with the ability to sign big free agents, there are still plenty of things the Pirates could learn from them. Most notably, how to handle an elite pitcher.
It's kind of like listening to your father when he advises you not to make the same mistake he made. The reason he knows is because he learned his lesson the hard way. Just like that father figure, the Nationals showed the Pirates what not to do with an ace.
When Gerrit Cole becomes a starter and the Pirates are contending for a division title, there should be zero talk of shutting him down for the remainder of the season. ZERO. The only plausible reasons would be injury or fatigue.
Nationals GM Mike Rizzo's handling of Stephen Strasburg was downright inexcusable. There was talk from the beginning of the season that Strasburg would be limited to 160 innings as he recovered from Tommy John Surgery. The idea does make sense but only if you manage the plan correctly. Rather than having him start the season, why wasn't Strasburg shut down for the first two months? The moves to get Edwin Jackson and Gio Gonzalez, and the decision to call up Bryce Harper meant the Nationals were expecting to contend. With that in mind, the Nationals should've used Strasburg starting in June which would have pushed him into the playoffs. He certainly would have been a better choice to start a playoff game than Jordan Zimmermann or Edwin Jackson and he definitely could have stopped the bleeding in game five before Drew Storen completed the meltdown.
For the Pirates, Gerrit Cole has drawn comparisons to Stephen Strasburg since being drafted last year out of UCLA. The 6'4 220 pound pitcher can run his fastball into the triple digits even after throwing 100+ pitches. Cole has explosive stuff that certainly qualifies as ace material. When he is ready, which should be soon, he will become the first true ace for Pittsburgh since Doug Drabek in the early 90's.
When a team has the opportunity to win a championship, they typically do as much as they can to gain an edge. Strasburg gives the Nationals a huge edge and the Pirates are hoping Gerrit Cole can be the same player for them. Neal Huntington's job as GM of the Pirates has come under a lot of scrutiny. Some fair, some unfair. But if he makes a move like Mike Rizzo; if he tries to fall into the same trap to try and protect his star player during a playoff run, his firing will be deserved much like the opening round loss.
This is all speculation, of course. The Pirates still need to be a contender which typically means winning more games than losing. The talent pool isn't nearly as deep in Pittsburgh as it is in Washington which allowed Rizzo to go out and trade for Gio Gonzalez last winter. There are definitely some holes to fill before we can even consider how the young pitching prospects should be handled once they reach Pittsburgh. Should the Pirates get to the playoffs, they already have game tape on how to handle their pitchers.