Everybody thinks next year is going to be better. Every team believes that this isn't the last chance.
They can't all be right.
That's what it comes down to in assessing the Washington Nationals' course of action regarding Stephen Strasburg, a 24-year-old two years removed from Tommy John elbow surgery.
If you knew, if you had real certainty, that Washington would be back in the postseason next year and the year after, the answer to the question would be different. But for all the admitted uncertainty regarding Strasburg's health, there's just as much that's unknown about where the Nats will be in a year, in three years, in five years.
This year, we know. This year, Washington has baseball's best record, baseball's best starting rotation, a deep lineup and a potent bullpen. And the Nats have a pitcher at the front of their rotation who, according to Hall of Fame-bound rival Chipper Jones, "does things that nobody else does."
The Nationals have a clubhouse filled with veterans who have come together to try to bring playoff baseball to a market starved for it. They have a roster that has ground it out for 6 1/2 months in hopes of playing for a World Series title. And they have a chance to convert all of that into something very, very special.
Maybe they'll have other chances, and maybe they'll have equally good chances. But the Nationals will never have a better chance to win a ring than they do in 2012. They're in position to ride a dominant starting rotation through three rounds of playoffs in which they will have home-field advantage in every one.
That's why this isn't a question of "toughness" or any similarly outdated notion. Protecting a young pitcher's arm is valuable and admirable. Frankly, it's wonderful that we're having this conversation, when even 10 years ago most teams wouldn't have thought twice about simply running Strasburg into the ground. The argument is not that Washington should pitch Strasburg because it's what Whitey Ford would have done. It's that chances to win the World Series don't come around every year.
Colleague Anthony Castrovince makes the counter-argument, that the Nationals are doing the right thing by shutting down Strasburg.
The fact that this is even a question, by the way, is a mark of some very real progress. The Nationals are absolutely to be commended for taking Strasburg's health seriously, and for doing massive amounts of research to try to maximize his well-being and his future. When they shut him down, it will be for the right reasons, and it will be a victory for all of us who want teams to take better care of their most precious assets.
So, yes, Washington's motivations are superb. The efforts to do it the right way, likewise. General manager Mike Rizzo has examined every possible way to go about the shutdown, and has settled on his course of action only after extensive consideration. Under virtually any other circumstances, it would be a no-brainer to shut down Strasburg and reload for next year.
Under these circumstances, though, the priorities should be adjusted. The situation has changed. Things are not the same as they were a year ago, when Washington shut down Jordan Zimmermann at the end of August. That team was playing for pride, and for the future. This one is playing for a championship.
Besides, we have learned repeatedly that even a veteran pitcher, past the injury nexus, can show serious ill effects from a deep October run. Whenever that time comes, if it comes, if Strasburg has to pitch 30-40 October innings, there's a good chance he'll feel it in the future.
That doesn't mean they should just throw in the towel. It's not some "they all get hurt" cop-out. It's just an acknowledgement that for any pitcher, for all pitchers, going deep into October is a risk. But it's a risk they take willingly, because the prize is so great.
This, in short, is the year that you built toward. This is the chance for which you set everything up. This is the season in which you cash in your chips and go for the biggest prize of all. If you shut down Strasburg, you're doing it in large part so that you can have him at full strength in some future, hypothetical season in which all the stars are aligned.
But all the stars are aligned right now.
The prize is in front of the Nationals. They deserve kudos for giving long, hard thought as to how to pursue it. But the conclusion should be to go for it. With their best pitcher leading the charge.
Matthew Leach is an editor and reporter for MLB.com. Read his blog, Obviously, You're Not a Golfer and follow him on Twitter at @MatthewHLeach.