Washington Nationals wunderkind Stephen Strasburg is the type of pitcher that can instantly transform a franchise, as evidenced by the incredible start to his career in 2010. The unbelievable hype was lived up to, as Strasburg clearly demonstrated he can pitch at the major league level. Plus, the fans wanted to see what this kid could do, and they turned out in droves. What an impact he had in a short 2010—from stats to economic impactStrasburg has the “it” factor.

But things took a turn in the opposite direction nearing the end of the 2010 season. He had some elbow soreness, went on the DL, and never really recovered. Finally it was diagnosed that he had a torn ulnar collateral ligament, and had to have it surgically repaired. This procedure is known as Tommy John surgery, named after the pitcher who first had it done on his arm. The surgery was developed and pioneered by the legendary Dr. Frank Jobe.

Here’s a great picture of the procedure:

In a nutshell, the ligament that helps to stabilize the throwing elbow becomes damaged beyond repair, and unless that pitcher decides to retire, the ligament must be reconstructed using another tendon or ligament. The procedure was a huge success for Tommy John, allowing him to have a second career and almost making the Hall of Fame. Since that surgery in 1974, thousands upon thousands of pitchers have been given a new lease on their pitching life.

While this could be the topic of another post, the big question out there is “WHY does this ligament need reconstruction for so many pitchers?” A number of theories and research attempt to answer this question, and there are some definitive reasons why. But there really isn’t ONE reason for everyone…

In Strasburg’s case, it could be said that maybe he threw too much in high school or college. Or maybe his mechanics that made him so dazzling also wore down his arm faster. Like I said, there’s no one real reason and that’s a great topic for another article.

So where is Strasburg now at the beginning of 2011? He had the surgery in September, and based on most accepted rehab protocols for this operation, he should be cleared to resume throwing very soon. Keep in mind that “resume throwing” does not equal “resume pitching.” He will do a few months of light toss, gradually building up his arm strength over 3-4 months before doing any pitching work. This long process is why a pitcher recovering from Tommy John is expected to miss a full season. A fast recovery from this is 9 months.

Could Strasburg pitch again in 2011? It is possible to see him in full action near the end of 2011, but a lot of things need to go perfectly in order for this to happen. He can’t have any setbacks, and can’t sustain another injury (like a shoulder tweak which is common after an elbow injury if the mechanics are not watched properly).

Do the Nationals play it safe and hold him out until 2012? Let’s wait and see how the season pans out, because the scenario exists, albeit unlikely, for the Nationals to be in the thick of things in August and September and the temptation will arise to get him out there.