New Injury Worry Knocks Stephen Strasburg Out Of Spring Training

Just days after the passing of original owner Ted Lerner, the Washington Nationals also lost erstwhile star pitcher Stephen Strasburg – certainly for all of spring training and an unspecified period of time beyond that.

Lerner, who purchased the former Montreal Expos from Major League Baseball and moved them to Washington for the 2005 season, was 97 when he died Feb. 12.

It was his money that allowed the club to ink Strasburg – the nation’s top amateur draft choice — to a record four-year, $15.1 million contract seconds before the signing deadline on Aug. 17, 2009.

A native Californian drafted off the San Diego State campus, Strasburg would make millions more during his 13 seasons with the Nationals. But a series of severe injuries would prevent him from realizing his full potential.

The latest, a recurrence of the thoracic outlet symptoms that caused rib and shoulder pain, has kept him from joining teammates in West Palm Beach for the first day of spring training Wednesday. Instead, he is rehabbing in Washington.

Since signing a seven-year, $245 million contract to stay with the Nationals two months after helping the team win its only world championship in 2019, Strasburg, now 34, has pitched only eight times, totaling just over 30 innings.

At the time, his contract was the biggest deal ever given a pitcher both in annual salary and overall value, though an estimated $80 million of the money was deferred.

The Strasburg pact contained numerous incentives: $500,000 for an MVP award, $250,000 for a second-place finish, $350,000 for third, $100,000 for fourth and $75,000 for fifth. His Cy Young incentives were the same. He would also get $100,000 for making the All-Star team or winning a Gold Glove or Silver Slugger [the DH was not used in the National League at the time].

Negotiated by high-powered, California-based agent Scott Boras, the contract also guaranteed Strasburg a $250,000 bonus for duplicating his 2019 World Series MVP award.

It was a calculated gamble because of the pitcher’s injury history and also since the Nationals had been debating whether to keep slugging third baseman Anthony Rendon, also a free agent after the 2019 season, or Strasburg, who had opted out of a contract that had four years and $100 million remaining.

Three days after Strasburg re-signed with the Nationals, Rendon, who had just led the National League in runs batted in, got a matching seven-year, $245 million contract from the Los Angeles Angels.

At the time of the Strasburg signing, Nationals principal owner Mark Lerner issued a statement that read in part, “We would not have won the 2019 World Series or accomplished everything we have these last 10 seasons if not for Stephen’s many contributions.”

The former first-round draft choice did deliver, winning 15 games in four different decisions before enjoying his best year in 2019 with an 18-6 mark, 3.32 earned run average, and league-leading 209 innings pitched, divided among 33 starts. He also fanned 251 men, a personal peak.

Strasburg then won five games in post-season play, pitching the wild-card Nationals to the World Championship over the Houston Astros.

Since then, he has hardly pitched.

A survivor of 2010 Tommy John elbow surgery that sidelined him for a year, he needed carpal tunnel surgery in 2020, thoracic outlet surgery a year later, and care for continuing TOS symptoms – including nerve discomfort in his rib-cage – in 2022.

The three-time All-Star had started a throwing program for this season but felt nerve discomfort after his second workout, Washington manager Dave Martinez told reporters during the club’s first day of spring training at Ballpark of the Palm Beaches.

Martinez had been hoping a healthy Strasburg would help the club recover from a 107-loss season, its worst since moving from Montreal to Washington at the start of the 2005 season. Now there’s no timetable for the return of the pitcher.

In fact, Strasburg is not listed on the Nationals spring roster and is almost certain to start the season on the 60-day injured list if the club needs his spot on its 40-man roster.

When healthy, the 6’5” right-hander is one of the premier pitchers in the game. A one-time fireballer, he has relied more on his curveball and changeup in deference to his advancing athletic age but told Washington Post sportswriter Jesse Dougherty last fall he wasn’t confident he would ever approach his 2019 form.

“He knows in his heart he wants to pitch,” Martinez said.

The Nationals have never hesitated to monitor Strasburg’s workload. In 2012, general manager Mike Rizzo pulled the plug on the pitcher after 159 innings – a controversial decision that could have cost the club, then the NL East champions, a chance to beat the St. Louis Cardinals in the Division Series.

By 2014, however, Strasburg was strong and healthy, He made a career-high 34 starts that year, leading the NL with 242 strikeouts, but did not reach 200 innings again until 2019.

Strasburg has a lifetime record of 113-62, 3.24 earned run average, and 1,723 strikeouts in 1,470 innings. Whether he pitches or not, Strasburg will receive $35 million per annum through 2026, with $11.43 million deferred with interest until 2028.