The plan is for Strasburg to throw five innings and 75 to 80 pitches, Manager Dave Martinez said before Friday’s series opener against the Arizona Diamondbacks.
“He’s progressing really well,” Martinez said at Chase Field. “Hopefully he comes out of this outing feeling good. We’ll see how he feels after he throws, the next day or two, and then we’ll go from there.”
Strasburg, 32, has thrown only 15 innings since he signed a seven-year, $245 million contract in December 2019, about five weeks after he was named World Series MVP. His health — and his ability to bounce back from this shoulder issue — remains one of the team’s top concerns. And his health beyond this season is critical for the entire franchise.
As usual, the Nationals have built their roster and payroll around the rotation. Strasburg’s contract is the team’s most lucrative in terms of annual salary and total value. That naturally creates expectations, not to mention frustration when injury strikes. The right-hander has dealt with those throughout a 12-year career. This is not the first time his shoulder has flared.
On Sunday, in yet another rehab appearance, Strasburg will face the Buffalo Bisons in Trenton, N.J. The Bisons, a Class AAA affiliate of the Toronto Blue Jays, are in Trenton because their home park is being prepped for the Blue Jays (who have been displaced by Canada’s strict coronavirus policies). Strasburg is well accustomed to testing his arm in odd situations.
When asked whether Strasburg could be activated after Sunday, should it go well, Martinez said the pitcher will be evaluated afterward to determine next steps. That’s the usual course.
But if that is the next step, Strasburg will have spent more than a month on the IL. He went to it following his second start of the season, a four-inning mess against the St. Louis Cardinals that included eight runs (seven earned) in four innings. During it, a camera caught him rubbing his shoulder and the base of his neck. And afterward, as if to foreshadow a foreseeable twist, he knocked aside questions about a possible injury.
“It’s a long season. It’s April; we had kind of a very strange start to the season,” Strasburg said that night at Busch Stadium. “So I’m just going to continue to do what I do and take it one day at a time. Whatever you guys want the narrative to be, that’s your call.”
Once Strasburg is ready, there will be ripple effects. It is likely that Erick Fedde will move from the rotation to the bullpen, where he was supposed to begin the year. But he first had a temporary spot because of Jon Lester’s extended stay on the coronavirus-related IL. Then Fedde kept getting starts in Strasburg’s absence.
Yet with Lester healthy and with Strasburg nearing his return, the bullpen has to make space for Fedde, who is out of minor league options and can’t be designated for assignment without going on waivers. That would give other teams a chance to scoop him up. The Nationals wanted to avoid that in late March and almost certainly will look to again. Austin Voth, who also is out of options, has earned a fixed spot as a reliever. That means Kyle Finnegan or lefty Sam Clay could get squeezed to the minors.
The Nationals don’t have to make any decisions quite yet. They shuffled their staff Friday, placing Patrick Corbin on the paternity list and recalling veteran Paolo Espino for bullpen depth. They have yet to be fully healthy this year, with a coronavirus outbreak, with Strasburg’s shoulder and with Juan Soto recently missing 15 days with a strained left shoulder.
Getting Strasburg back should be a big lift. They just want to make sure, as best they can, that he is back for good.