WASHINGTON — The Nationals face an uncomfortable reality they’ve been all-too-familiar with over the years: Stephen Strasburg is hurt again.
He hit the IL on Tuesday for the 15th time in his career and fifth time over the last three seasons. It came after he missed the first two months of the season recovering from last summer’s thoracic outlet syndrome surgery, only to make one start before another injury — one that stemmed from the effects of the procedure — sidelined him once again.
The 33-year-old has missed significant chunks of time before, but the uncertainty thoracic outlet syndrome casts on a pitcher’s future has his baseball future facing worse odds than ever.
“We all hurt for him because he worked his butt off to get back and try to help us,” Nationals manager Davey Martinez said in a press conference Tuesday. “We were so excited that he was out there. It was something else to see him out there pitching again so I hope and pray that he comes back — who knows when, there is no timetable — but that he can come back and pitch again for us.”
Perhaps no player on the Nationals’ roster other than Juan Soto is more important to their future than Strasburg. Washington signed him to a seven-year, $245 million deal in 2019, fresh off a top-5 finish in NL Cy Young voting and a dominant playoff run that culminated with the right-hander claiming World Series MVP honors as he led the team to a championship.
However, it’s a contract that’s hurt the Nationals more than helped them thus far.
Strasburg has started just eight games in the two and a half years since signing the deal, finishing each of the last two campaigns on the IL recovering from season-ending surgeries. All the while, the Nationals’ depth failed to keep them in the playoff hunt in 2020 and 2021. They then sold off a slew of veterans at the trade deadline last July and entered this season with an eye toward the future.
Nobody will ever know if Strasburg’s availability — and accompanying dominance — could’ve prevented the Nationals from tearing things down. But his lack of sheer innings pitched has made his $35 million average annual value an albatross on the team’s payroll even with $80 million of it deferred to 2027-2029. Even so, Martinez still defends the Nationals’ decision to re-sign him.
“For me, he deserved that contract,” Martinez said. “He really did. You look what he did, if it wasn’t for him we don’t win a world championship. Nobody could’ve predicted what was going to happen. Like I said, I just hope that the results, it’s something that’s positive from the next visit to the doctor’s and then we can figure out what’s next for him.”
The Nationals faced losing both Strasburg and Anthony Rendon in free agency after the 2019 season, so they went with their former No. 1 overall pick who had already signed a team-friendly extension once before. Rendon also wasn’t willing to accept deferred money, a practice that had become standard in Washington with the Lerner family as owners. Though it’s still far too early to make a final assessment on either contract, Rendon has also missed a lot of time with injury while performing well below expectations when healthy.
Looking ahead, Strasburg can still be a valuable asset for the Nationals. The club’s rebuild (or “reboot,” as GM Mike Rizzo calls it) would be expedited if Strasburg found a way to get back on the field and stay there while regaining his form. At the same time, anything less than that will make the tricky process of rebuilding an organization into a contender even more difficult.