Yes, Stephen Strasburg is hurt. Again.
Strasburg has just one win since he signed a seven-year, $245 million contract after being named MVP of the 2019 World Series. Never fear — only 916 more games left on his deal.
Before the Washington Nationals and their fans wail too loudly, they may want to incorporate two kinds of context. First, since elbow surgery in 2010, Strasburg has recovered from and then adapted his stuff and style to every injury he has endured. He misses time. But he knows his body well enough that he hasn’t blown out. And since 2012, he is 107-57.
Maybe this time will be different — and sadder. But, at 32, many an elite pitcher has found a way to have several more good seasons despite injuries, scars and rehabs.
The other context in which Strasburg can be placed is seldom noticed. For a dozen years, I have watched as the Nats try to do free agent deals or extensions with stars for amounts ranging from $100 million to $300 million.
Every time, the Nats win. Even when they seem to lose, they win. “How long will their luck hold?” I wonder.
The players the Nats tried to get who would have been anchors on the organization — or whose deals would have impeded other moves that worked out better — have turned down the Nats’ money every time. The Lerners offered Mark Teixeira, Prince Fielder, Bryce Harper, Ian Desmond, Jordan Zimmermann and assorted less-publicized others, such as Jason Heyward, far more than $1 billion in all.
The Nats accidentally ducked every one of those potentially stinky or restrictive deals. With the same amount of cash that they didn’t give to Desmond and Zimmermann, they signed Max Scherzer for what may be the best free agent contract ever. The impending departure of Desmond forced them to trade for a prospect: star Trea Turner.
They extended Strasburg for $175 million in 2016, which kept him on board for a division title in 2017 and the World Series win two years later. After Harper left, they signed Patrick Corbin and others to fill out a full roster, rather than have a lopsided, Harper-heavy team, and won a ring.
Nine-figure contracts in MLB are like gigantic dominoes. When they topple, they frequently lead to a blessed or cursed chain reaction of other decisions.
In the winter of 2008-09, Ted Lerner believed he had a chance to snag Teixeira, who grew up 37 miles from Nationals Park, in a bidding war with the New York Yankees. Thank goodness he didn’t pull off that long shot, even though he may have slightly outbid the Yankees’ eight-year, $180 million offer.
Over the first four seasons, Teixeira would have made the Nats better — and almost certainly would have prevented them from being awful enough to get the No. 1 draft pick that resulted in Harper. In the four subsequent seasons, Teixeira got old and washed up. He might have cost the Nationals division titles.
The Nats were considered a favorite for Fielder in 2012. Talk about dumb luck. Detroit got him for $214 million over nine years. Fielder last played almost five years ago. The Nats still would have owed him $24 million per year in 2019 and 2020, too.
As recently as a week ago, I still wondered whether this pattern was continuing. Ex-Nat Anthony Rendon was hitting .213 and had missed 25 percent of his games since he joined the Los Angeles Angels, while Strasburg had just come back from the injured list and looked OK. Corbin seemed ready to shake off an April slump.
Do the Nats own a rabbit’s foot factory?
Now, with Strasburg hurt for the third time in the past 10 months, maybe the rest of MLB will be tempted to say to the Nats, “Welcome to the Big Contract Misery Club.”
Baseball has 17 active players on contracts that were originally signed for more than $215 million. I could inundate you with detail. Instead, I will go broad brush, knowing that nobody will agree with all of these evaluations. But the big picture should be clear.
Albert Pujols, Miguel Cabrera, Robinson Canó (suspended for this season), Joey Votto, David Price and Giancarlo Stanton are near the end of the road, washed up or so injury-prone that they might as well be. As a group, they’re still owed more than $450 million.
Those aren’t even the scariest deals. Francisco Lindor, Mookie Betts and Manny Machado, with more recent deals combined to be worth more than $1 billion, are having rough seasons. Lindor’s may be part of a multi-season offensive slide. Betts, 28, has missed time with multiple injuries.
Wasn’t “youth” supposed to be the inoculant for megadeal disasters? Throughout MLB, injuries have risen this year with claims that baseball is behind the times in training methods and avoiding soft-tissue injuries.
But is anybody indestructible anymore? Once, that described Mike Trout. By the time he returns from his current trip to the IL, Trout, 29, will have missed 25 percent of the Angels’ games over the past five years. He’s fabulous when he plays. But how much and how well will he play over the next nine years for $319 million?
San Diego Padres shortstop Fernando Tatis Jr., perhaps the most exciting young player in the game and possessor of a $340 million deal at 22, is near the major league lead in homers. But he also has missed games this year from three different causes. This offseason, his left shoulder may need surgery for a minor labrum tear that already forced him to abandon the one-hand-off-the-bat follow-through on his swing.
Washington fans have a front-row seat to watch such monster-deal drama. Without the huge money given to Scherzer, Strasburg and Corbin, the Nats would never have sniffed a title. Jayson Werth and Ryan Zimmerman were core to previous NL East flags.
True, the Tampa Bay Rays have reached two World Series and the Oakland A’s win lots of regular-season games, both on shoestring payrolls. But their star-lite, analytics-driven teams hardly fill seats. Is that what the Lerners or the Nationals’ fans want?
After 2022 and 2024, respectively, Turner and Juan Soto would be free agents — size Extra Large and Humongous. Ironically, Scherzer, in his walk year, may be the only current Nationals player who is remotely akin to a bargain; because of the MLB-wide prejudice against players on the wrong side of 35, some don’t list Max among the top 10 upcoming free agents. What!?
For now, the Nationals, who have been both smart and fortunate over the past dozen years of contract wars, have signed sweet-dream deals, such as Mad Max, and avoided a single long-term nightmare.
That is not the norm. In the case of Strasburg, D.C. may need to accept that some renewals of baseball-marriage vows can be both high-risk and mandatory.
When a pitcher puts you on the map as a rookie, when he battles injuries and criticism for years and then carries you to your city’s first World Series win in 95 years, nobody has a realistic option — or should want one. You sign on the line, then live it out. And hope for the best.