Ah, come on. That’s not how the Washington sports mind works, right? For all the highs of the Capitals and the Cup in 2018 and the Nationals’ finished fight of 2019, it feels like there are more moments like Monday, when Nationals Manager Dave Martinez announced that Stephen Strasburg would return to the injured list and get an MRI. As the brain spirals 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 the history of baseball? In all of sports?
If the answer to those two are, “Yes,” then what follows carries with it the potential for even more disaster: Can the Nationals, with an annual commitment of $ 35 million to a pitcher who currently can not pitch, construct a competitive roster around that dead weight?
And if the answer to that is some version of, “Not likely,” then it becomes fair to consider another painful step in this endless game of if-this-then-that: Can Juan Soto be convinced to stay, even if there’s no guarantee when or if annually contending for the postseason will be realistic again?
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We’re not there yet. But it’s both natural and frightening to mentally stumble down that slippery slope. This is a last-place team that will almost certainly finish in last place. One of the pieces who could be part of the solution is again on ice. Even with all the unknowns, it’s hard to see a glass half full.
And it’s not just because of where Stephen Strasburg is. It’s because of where he’s been. This is the 15th trip to the injured list in Strasburg’s career. Those injuries have interrupted 10 of Strasburg’s 13 seasons.
Stephen Strasburg has been out with the following ailments, in chronological order, dating to 2010: right shoulder inflammation, a right forearm flexor strain (that led to Tommy John surgery), a mild lat strain, neck tightness, a left oblique strain, an upper back strain, right elbow soreness, a right elbow nerve impingement, right shoulder inflammation, a cervical nerve impingement, right carpal tunnel neuritis, right shoulder inflammation (again), a neck strain, recovery from thoracic outlet surgery – and finally, whatever he’s dealing with now. Orthopedic sports medicine experts could use his body alone to teach a career’s worth of lessons.
Drawing conclusions from that create-your-own salad of ailments is fraught. One to toss, however, is the idea that Stephen Strasburg is somehow frail in constitution. His body has failed him, time and time and time again, to the point where it’s fair to wonder about his future. But look into his eyes and listen to the frustration in his voice when discussing his setbacks, and it’s clear he does not just consider them in the context of his career. He considers them in the context of the trajectory of the only franchise he has ever played for – and, in all likelihood, will ever play for.
This, from just last month, after his first rehab start at Class A Fredericksburg – thinking about the state of the team for which he had not been able to pitch.
“I think it’s easy for me to kind of put that all on myself thinking that, ‘Okay, we’re not playing well because I’m not healthy,’” he said. “I’ve had too many sleepless nights thinking that.”
This, from a conversation we had this past spring training: “I’ve racked my brain trying to figure out what the future will look like, and I do not have a crystal ball.”
Stephen Strasburg will return to the injured list after just one start
This, after the final start of 2018, when he made two stints on the IL and was limited to 22 starts: “It seems like every year there’s something different, and I’m obviously pretty tired of it.”
In all these years since he was taken with the first overall pick in the 2009 draft, since the “Strasmas” of his debut in 2010 – a 14-strikeout pronouncement that is still one of the top five athletic events I have witnessed live – we do not really know him as a person. He is introverted, even shy, and though his comfort level in Washington has increased exponentially – to the point where his offseason trips to hometown San Diego are less frequent – he has not let us in the way others have. Bryce Harper, Ryan Zimmerman and Max Scherzer have distinctly different personalities. But in their time here, each revealed enough that their relationship with the fan base was tied not just to performance on the field, but also to how they behaved and presented themselves off it.
Stephen Strasburg is different. Still, those old quotes above – and others like them, from past sessions discussing other injuries – should dismiss the irresponsible idea that he’s happy to collect his massive checks whether he pitches again or not. To be clear: He’s getting the money, because that’s how baseball contracts work. But he’s not doing it with his feet kicked up and a Mai Tai on the arm rest of his beach chair. It drives him crazy.
Which merely puts him in a step with a fan base that has no clue what the future will hold. The Nationals have faith that their system includes players who will help them contend in seasons to come. But the collective must carry them, because each individual case comes with no guarantee. Carter Kieboom and Victor Robles can serve as cautionary tales for, say, Cade Cavalli or Brady House. Proceed with caution concerning their long-term projections, just as it’s prudent to proceed with caution about what Stephen Strasburg might contribute.
It’s a lot to take in. Stephen Strasburg is a major reason the Nationals fly a World Series flag in the outfield at Nationals Park. But as 2022 trudges forward without him, it’s only natural to wonder whether the Nats’ next few seasons can be filled with hope. When he pitches, he’s brilliant. For the 15th time in his career, he’s not pitching. It’s hard to see light in a tunnel that seems to grow longer by the week.