Ah, come on. That’s not how Washington sportsmanship works, is it? Despite all the highlights of the Capitals and Cup in 2018, and the Nationals’ finished battle in 2019, there seems to be more moments like Monday’s when Nationals manager Dave Martinez announced Strasburg would be back on the injured list and getting an MRI. As the brain reels downward, it’s not unreasonable to find a bottom where crippling questions await: Will Strasburg’s seven-year, $245 million contract go down as one of the worst in baseball history? In all sports?
If the answer to those two questions is yes, here’s the potential for even more disaster: With a $35 million annual commitment for a pitcher who can’t currently pitch, can the Nationals build a competitive roster? about its own weight?
And if the answer to the is a version of “Not Likely,” then it becomes fair to consider another painful step in this endless game of if-then-that: Can Juan Soto be persuaded to stay, though there’s no guarantee of when or whether it is realistic every year for the postseason?
What questions do you have about Stephen Strasburg’s setback? Ask the post.
We’re not there yet. But mentally stumbling down that slippery slope is both natural and frightening. This is a last place team that will almost certainly end up in last place. One of the characters that could be part of the solution is back on hold. Despite all the unknowns, it’s hard to see a glass half full.
And that’s not just because of Strasbourg’s location. It’s because of where he’s been. This is the 15th trip to the injury list of Strasburg’s career. Those injuries interrupted 10 of Strasbourg’s 13 seasons.
If it feels like it’s always something, it’s because it’s always something. A full accounting? Take a seat and make yourself comfortable. It will take a while.
Strasburg had been traveling since 2010 with the following ailments in chronological order: right shoulder inflammation, right forearm flexor strain (leading to Tommy John surgery), minor bib strain, neck strain, left oblique strain, torso back strain, sore right elbow, right elbow nerve impingement, right shoulder inflammation, cervical nerve impingement, right carpal tunnel neuritis, right shoulder inflammation (again), a neck strain, recovering from thoracic surgery — and finally, whatever he is has to do with now. Orthopedic sports physicians could teach lessons for a career with just his body.
It is difficult to draw conclusions from this salad of complaints. However, one should discard the idea that Strasbourg is somehow frail in its constitution. His body has let him down time and time again, to the point where it’s fair to worry about his future. But if you look him in the eye and hear the frustration in his voice when he talks about his setbacks, it’s clear that he doesn’t just view them in the context of his career. He sees them in the context of developing the only franchise he’s ever played for – and in all likelihood ever will play for.
This was only last month, after his first start in rehab in Class A in Fredericksburg – when he thought about the state of the team for which he had not been able to serve.
“I think it’s easy for me to blame it all on myself and think, ‘Okay, we’re not playing well because I’m not healthy,'” he said. “I’ve had too many sleepless nights thinking about it.”
This is from a conversation we had last spring training: “I’ve been scratching my head trying to figure out what the future will be like and I don’t have a crystal ball.”
Stephen Strasburg will return to the injured list after just one start
This after the final start in 2018, when he completed two stints in the IL and was limited to 22 starts: “It seems like every year is different and I’m obviously pretty fed up with it.”
In all the years since he got the first overall pick in the 2009 draft, since his debut “Strasmas” in 2010 – a 14-strikeout declaration that still stands as one of the top five sporting events I’ve watched live – we don’t really know him as a person. He’s introverted, even shy, and while his well-being in Washington has grown exponentially — to the point where his off-season trips to his hometown of San Diego are less frequent — he hasn’t let us in as much as others. Bryce Harper, Ryan Zimmerman and Max Scherzer have distinctly different personalities. But in their time here, everyone revealed enough that their relationship with the fan base was tied not only to their on-field performance, but also to how they behaved and presented off the field.
Strasbourg is different. Still, those old quotes above — and other similar ones, from past sessions that discussed other injuries — should dismiss the irresponsible idea that he’s happy to collect his massive checks whether he hits again or not. To be clear, he gets the money because that’s how baseball contracts work. But he doesn’t do it with his feet up and a mai tai on the arm of his beach chair. It drives him crazy.
Which only aligns him with a fan base that has no idea what the future holds. The Nationals are confident their system includes players who will help them struggle in the seasons to come. But the collective has to bear them, because each individual case is without guarantee. Carter Kieboom and Victor Robles can serve as cautionary tales for, say, Cade Cavalli or Brady House. Be cautious about their long-term projections, just as it’s wise to be cautious about what Strasburg might contribute.
There’s a lot to process. Stephen Strasburg is one of the main reasons the Nationals fly a World Series flag in the Nationals Park outfield. But as 2022 progresses without him, it’s only natural to wonder if the Nats’ next few seasons can be filled with hope. When it hits it’s brilliant. For the 15th time in his career he is not playing. It’s hard to see light in a tunnel that seems to be getting longer by the week.