The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

With Stephen Strasburg’s latest injury, Washington’s foundation continues to wobble

Stephen Strasburg's early exit this week was followed by another trip to the injured list. (Erik S. Lesser/EPA-EFE/REX/Shutterstock)

Mike Rizzo is fond of saying that, to oversee an entire baseball operations department, he has to have a one-year plan, a three-year plan and a five-year plan. Whiteboards on his office walls at Nationals Park address them all. The five-year plan is, of course, always the murkiest because it relies on the development of players not yet in the majors, not to mention the addition of players not yet in the organization.

Look five years out for Rizzo’s Washington Nationals, and there is only one prominent figure currently under contract: Stephen Strasburg, whose $35 million-a-year deal runs through 2025. That’s longer than Juan Soto’s guaranteed to be here, longer than Victor Robles is guaranteed to be here, longer than Rizzo himself is guaranteed to be here as the team’s general manager.

There’s no telling where the 2021 Washington Nationals’ season will end up. They lost five in a row to end the month of May. They won back-to-back games this week in Atlanta. They concluded that four-game series with Thursday’s 5-1 loss. They can’t sustain anything. They’re 23-30, not acceptable but not unrecoverable. There’s still time.

“We got to go,” Manager Dave Martinez said after Thursday’s loss. “It’s go time.”

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But not on all cylinders. When Strasburg looked off in Tuesday night’s start against the Braves, then came out in the second inning, it wasn’t about 2021. It was about the most expensive asset in the history of the franchise, who might be the key to whether there’s a sustainable winner in Washington. It’s why Martinez watched Strasburg fidget and fiddle, trying to get comfortable Tuesday night, and thought not of that game or this season — but of the widest view possible.

“I looked at him and my thought is, ‘We need this guy,’” said Martinez, also not guaranteed to be here to see the end of Strasburg’s tenure. “Not only for now but for a long period of time. So we got to get help.”

The help must be a healthy Strasburg because without a healthy Strasburg, the foundation of this club is a heck of a lot creakier.

For a decade now, it’s remarkable how sturdy this franchise has felt. At almost any given point, the roster was constructed to win in the moment but also had an identifiable core that offered the chance to compete in the future. More than that, there were predictable, smooth ways to hand the baton.

When the winning began, Ian Desmond was the bedrock shortstop; the winter before he departed, Rizzo traded for prospect Trea Turner. Jordan Zimmermann ate innings and won games, and by the time he left, Max Scherzer was already in place, offering an even better version of Zimmermann. When first baseman Adam LaRoche left as a free agent, Ryan Zimmerman was there to slide over to first because Anthony Rendon was ready to step up and step in at third. When Bryce Harper departed, Soto was already here. There seemed an orderliness to it all.

Now that flow is harder to identify. In some ways, this is uncharted territory for Rizzo and his lieutenants. Five Nats teams have played postseason ball since 2012. None have peeked past their current season and seen as much uncertainty as this one does.

In a lot of ways, the first division winner — in 2012 — reintroduced baseball to a city that had gone more than three decades without it. Back then, there was so much about which to get excited — not just the new feelings that team delivered but the promise beyond that October. Of that team’s eight regular position players, top four starting pitchers and two most important relievers — roughly, its 14 most important pieces — none were due to be free agents that fall. Only left fielder Michael Morse was a free agent even a year later.

You knew who they were. They knew who they were. As Davey Johnson said, “World Series or bust!”

That stability and certainty generally followed those good Nats teams. In 2014, they had three key free agents-to-be: LaRoche and relievers Rafael Soriano and Tyler Clippard. In 2016, that number was just two: catcher Wilson Ramos and closer Mark Melancon, a midseason acquisition. In 2017, there was only Jayson Werth. Even considering players who would be free agents two years out, the numbers were manageable: four in 2014, one in 2016, four in 2017.

Only in 2019 did there seem to be uncertainty because six of those 14 most important players were free to leave thereafter. And then they won the whole darn thing and decided to try to keep as much of the band together as possible. So back came Zimmerman, Howie Kendrick, Yan Gomes, Daniel Hudson — and Strasburg, the World Series MVP, who opted out of his seven-year, $175 million deal and turned it into a seven-year, $245 million deal.

The results of that deal, thus far: two seasons, seven starts, 26⅔ innings, more questions than answers. He missed almost all of the truncated 2020 season with carpal tunnel neuritis, which prompted surgery. He went on the IL this April with right shoulder tightness. He’s back on it now with a strained neck.

“It’s him having these little nagging things that he is trying to figure out, and we need to figure it out for him — and for us — for the future,” Martinez said. “Because like I said, he’s going to be here, and I want him here.”

Mason Denaburg has undergone two major surgeries since the Nats drafted him. He’s still 21.

But who will be with him? Take those same 14 key players — the most regular eight position players, the top four starters and the top two relievers — and eight are free agents after this season. That doesn’t even count Zimmerman, who has produced more than primary first baseman Josh Bell. Two more — Turner and Bell — are free after next season.

The exceptions: Strasburg; Patrick Corbin, who took the loss Thursday and has a 5.41 ERA and 1.545 WHIP the past two seasons; Robles, with a .622 on-base-plus-slugging percentage over the past two seasons; and Soto — a generational star. It’s a position in which the modern version of this franchise hasn’t found itself. It’s kind of unsettling.

Whatever the severity of Strasburg’s neck issue, the idea that he somehow wilts has to be laid to rest by now. He is hurt. He has to get better.

“It definitely drives him bonkers,” said Martinez, who said he told Strasburg: “When you come back, you’re going to help us win and help us win a lot of games. So let’s just get this right.”

It’s June now. The trade deadline is still nearly two months off. The Nationals will tell us whether they will be buyers or sellers by how they play. Those determinations don’t need to be made — indeed, shouldn’t be made — today.

But with so much unsettled about both the present and the future and with the one piece of the franchise signed beyond all the rest currently unavailable, the Nationals haven’t felt as close to a reset in a decade.