The problem with Stephen Strasburg’s latest trip to the injured list is that it sends the mind to uncomfortable, scary places even if we don’t know precisely what’s going on. Remind yourself of that as we wait for more details about his latest health concern, which followed his only start of 2022, which brought his total innings pitched since becoming the 2019 World Series MVP to 31⅓. Maybe it’ll be all right. Maybe everything will work out.
“I’m going to be — as I always am — [believing] that he’s going to pitch again,” Washington Nationals Manager Dave Martinez said Tuesday afternoon. “And I hope that that’s the case.”
Even in that quasi-optimism, there’s acknowledgment that pessimism has power. That’s 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 as though there are more moments such as Monday, when Martinez announced that Strasburg would return to the injured list and get an MRI exam. 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 questions is “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’t pitch, construct a competitive roster around that dead weight?
“I don’t want to think that way,” Martinez said. “I really don’t. To me, he deserved that contract. He really did. … Without him, we don’t win a world championship. Nobody could have predicted what was going to happen.”
But wait. There’s more. If the answer to a question about the Nats’ ability to contend in the near future 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 is realistic again?
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 almost certainly will finish in last place. One of the pieces who could be part of the solution is again on ice. Even with all of the unknowns, it’s hard to see a glass half full.
And it’s not just because of where Strasburg is. It’s because of where he has been. This is the 15th trip to the injured list in Strasburg’s career. Those injuries have interrupted 10 of his 13 seasons.
If it feels like it’s always something, it’s because it’s always something. A full accounting? Have a seat and get comfortable. It’ll take a while.
Strasburg has been out with the following ailments, in chronological order, dating from 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, the stress reaction in his ribs that 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 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 doesn’t 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 hadn’t 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 at spring training: “I’ve racked my brain trying to figure out what the future will look like, and I don’t have a crystal ball.”
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 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 don’t 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 hasn’t let us in the way others have. Bryce Harper, Ryan Zimmerman and Max Scherzer have distinctly different personalities. But in their time here, they revealed enough that their relationship with the fan base was tied not just to their performance on the field but also to how they comported and presented themselves off it.
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 armrest of his beach chair. It drives him crazy.
“He wants to figure this out,” Martinez said. “He desperately wants to figure this out.”
That merely puts him in 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 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 Strasburg might contribute.
It’s a lot to take in. Stephen Strasburg is a major reason the Nationals fly a World Series flag 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.