The Washington Nationals signed the impressive yet injury-prone Stephen Strasburg to a $175 million extension this past season. Should the Nats be concerned about his health moving forward?
When the news broke in early May that the Washington Nationals had extended starter Stephen Strasburg to a seven-year, $175 million contract, most found it pretty surprising. Strasburg was set to hit a thin free agent market where he would’ve been the top starter available. Instead, Washington locked him up with a deal that would keep him in D.C. until at least 2019 (or longer, depending on if he forgoes his opt-outs after the third and fourth seasons).
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The deal seemed like a fair price for the Nats, a team that had forked over a seven-year, $210 million contract to fellow ace Max Scherzer only a year earlier. Heading into the All-Star Break, Strasburg was 12-0 with a 2.62 ERA. He looked like a legitimate Cy Young candidate. Then, not too long after the second half began, the injury bug that has plagued him his entire career struck again.
In mid-June, Strasburg suffered an upper back strain in the weight room that put him on the shelf for two weeks. In his return to the mound, the 28-year old righty fired 6.2 hitless innings before being pulled because of his rapidly rising pitch count.
His success would be short-lived, however, as Strasburg took another trip to the Disabled List after exiting his August 17 start against the Rockies with “right elbow soreness.”
He tried to work his way back, but the Nats were forced to place Strasburg right back on the DL after throwing only 2.1 innings in September. Strasburg suggested that he would be able to return for the playoffs, but was ultimately unable to pitch again in 2016.
Since making his major league debut in 2010, Strasburg has had eight separate stints on the DL. He tore his UCL in 2010 and was forced to miss nearly the entire 2011 season after undergoing Tommy John surgery. Of course, the Nats also took the precautionary route with him the following year, infamously shutting him down at the end of the 2012 campaign to preserve his long-term health.
Since the shutdown, Strasburg has still been on the DL at least once every season other than 2014 (the only year he was able to pitch in the playoffs). While his career 3.17 ERA and 10.6 K/9 indicate that he has the ability to pitch like the league’s elite, his health remains a major issue going forward. Strasburg’s extension begins in 2017, with the Nats owing him $18.3 million each of the next two seasons. In 2019, he will be making $38.3 million.
Strasburg has the option to opt out of the deal after 2019, but if his injury problems persist, why would he test the open market when he’s on the wrong side of 30 and the Nats still owe him $100 million?
Although Scherzer and the always underrated Tanner Roark did a serviceable enough job at the front of the rotation in the NLDS against the Dodgers, the Washington Nationals clearly missed Strasburg’s presence in the series. If they are going to be a perennial playoff team over the next several years, Strasburg is going to need to play a major role. Can the Nats depend on him? That still remains to be seen.