Sorry, this isn’t news of a significant breakthrough between Major League Baseball and the Players Association. There are still only scraps to feed off of in terms of actual baseball news at the moment while the two sides continue to posture and make small progress.
Instead, we’re taking a look at something of a $245 million elephant in the room for the Washington Nationals, right-hander Stephen Strasburg.
Just over two years ago, General Manager Mike Rizzo and Strasburg sat in the press room at Nationals Park gleefully talking about how the pitcher’s new seven-year contract would all but make him a National for the rest of his career.
“It’s great for me to say that I’m going to be a National for life,” Strasburg said. “To have my kids be here too and experience being Nationals for life as well, that’s something that I’m really fortunate with.”
It was almost a no-brainer for the Nationals to make it happen as just a couple of months earlier, Strasburg put the finishing touches to one of his best major league seasons to date.
The right-hander made 33 regular season starts to the tune of a 3.32 ERA while striking out an incredible 251 batters and walking just 56, all before shining in October and picking up the World Series MVP award in the Fall Classic.
Even after he opted out in the aftermath of the parade down Pennsylvania Avenue, there was almost no way that the Nats were going to let Strasburg ply his trade elsewhere.
His debut was the first defining moment of a new era for baseball in the nation’s capital. Then his performance, not just in the World Series, but throughout the postseason, helped give the team the biggest defining moment in franchise history.
Strasburg wanted to be back in Washington, management and ownership wanted him back in Washington, and most of all, the fans wanted their World Series hero back in Washington.
Since then though, to say things haven’t gone to plan would be an understatement.
Over the last two years, Strasburg has pitched just 26.2 innings across seven starts, dealing with a variety of ailments that have had him on the Injured List instead of on the mound.
Given his previous injury history, nobody was expecting Strasburg to suddenly become a workhorse who would make 33 starts every season. But to not even crack double-digit starts over the last two years is a huge concern, especially as Strasburg has inherited the mantle as the team’s highest-paid player with the departure of Max Scherzer.
That’s left many questioning the Nationals’ decision to hand out such a hefty contract to Strasburg. As expected though, the team’s GM is confident the right-hander can bounce back...
“You’ve never heard me say seven years for a pitcher is a good idea,” Rizzo said after the team’s trade deadline sell-off this past July. “They throw a baseball very, very fast, many, many times, and it’s an unnatural action.
“But we pick and choose who we want to give these long-term deals to, and I’ve said this many, many times, it’s the person that we’re signing, not the player, and we got ourselves a great player with Stras and even better person.
“We are going to get the maximum out of Stephen Strasburg that we can, he’s going to be champing at the bit to get back on the mound and we expect him to work extremely hard to get back and he will.
“And you guys know when he’s on the mound he’s as good as anybody in baseball. So that’s our expectation, get him back on the mound healthy, and we expect him to be a great pitcher for us.”
For most injuries, it wouldn’t be a huge deal for Strasburg to try to come back from it and hopefully resume being his dominant self when fully healthy again.
This time around, however, it’s not quite as clear a path back as it has been previously.
Midway through last season, Strasburg was diagnosed with Thoracic Outlet Syndrome and shut down for the rest of the year with the hope that he would be ready for Spring Training.
“We just spoke to Stras,” Rizzo said at the end of the 2021 season. “He looks great, he feels great, he’s going to begin throwing the beginning of next month, and our expectation is that he’s going to be pitching to prepare for the season at the beginning of Spring Training.”
TOS is becoming more and more common in pitchers lately, and the results haven’t been too promising for those who come out the other end and pitch in the majors again.
Perhaps the most notable instance of TOS for an MLB pitcher was Matt Harvey. The former New York Mets ace looked primed to be a dominant starter for a long time before his 2016 season was cut short after pain in his shoulder and fingers.
Before TOS, Harvey was routinely living in the upper-90s with his fastball. After TOS though, Harvey’s velocity kept dipping and dipping, sometimes barely getting above 90-91mph in outings.
While it looks as though Strasburg will get back on a big-league mound again, the fact that other pitchers who have returned from TOS look a shadow of their former selves leaves a huge question mark hanging over him and whether he can adapt.
Even in a potential best-case scenario for his recovery where Strasburg proves he’s ready to return and pitch effectively this spring with potentially reduced velocity and stuff, there’s still the fact that he’s not pitched much the last two years and likely means the Nationals will handle him with great care early on in the year in an effort to keep him off the Injured List.
That’s the best-case scenario, and even that’s pretty bleak. The most likely scenarios involve Strasburg needing more time, possibly missing the start of the regular season, as he gets to a point where he can withstand the rigors of being in a big-league rotation again.
With five more years left on his current contract, the former would be a sight for sore eyes and offer a glimmer of hope that Strasburg can build himself back up again. The reality, however, is that this looks like the beginning of the end for the franchise icon...