Nationals want Strasburg to report to camp, mentor teammates

WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. – It’s impossible to miss inside the Nationals clubhouse. It’s prominently located, at the end of a row of lockers belonging to the rest of the members of the team’s starting rotation.

It’s the same locker Stephen Strasburg has used since the organization began training here in 2017. And it continues to be adorned with his name, his jersey, his shoes and a stack of correspondence, virtually unchanged from the state it was in one year ago.

And as was the case one year ago, Strasburg isn’t here using his locker. He remains at home in Northern Virginia, having conceded last summer he could no longer attempt to revive his pitching career.

But because Strasburg and the Nationals have not been able to agree to the financial details of his retirement, he remains on the club’s 40-man roster. Which means he still gets a locker. Which, it appears, the organization now believes he is obligated to use.

Do the Nats actually expect Strasburg to come to West Palm Beach this spring?

“Yeah, he’s invited like every other guy on our 40-man roster,” general manager Mike Rizzo said. “He’s got until Feb. 24 to be here, and, yeah, I expect him to be here.”

Feb. 24 is the mandatory reporting date for all players invited to major-league spring training, per the collective bargaining agreement between the league and the players’ union. Those who do not report by that date without being excused by the club can be subject to discipline.

What would happen if Strasburg doesn’t report on time?

“I’m anticipating he will be here,” Rizzo said.

There’s little reason to believe that will actually happen. Strasburg never came to West Palm Beach last spring. He occasionally went to Nationals Park during the season, though never on game days when the clubhouse was open to reporters. By all accounts, he ended his attempt to return from his litany of injuries last summer.

The Nationals, to be clear, would not expect Strasburg to come to Florida for the purposes of rehabbing his body with the goal of returning to pitch.

“I don’t think that things have changed since the last time we checked in on him,” Rizzo said. “He is not in baseball rehabilitation mode. He’s not in any kind of soft-tossing mode. He’s just trying to get his body back into shape where he could live his life.”

Rizzo does believe Strasburg could still have real value to the organization, though, by coming to camp and serving as a mentor to other pitchers.

“I’m not going to get into what our expectations of him are fully, but yeah, be around,” the GM said. “You’re a legacy part of this franchise. Be here, be accessible to young players. What a better guy for (Cade) Cavalli to lean on. Stras has had the Tommy John, came back from the Tommy John, pitched great after having Tommy John. How do you rehab from it? How do you prepare after rehab from it? So this guy’s got a lot to offer a franchise beyond toeing it up on the rubber.”

Strasburg, of course, has never really been the talkative type. If another player approached him seeking advice, he would always give it. But he mostly remained focused on his own preparation, a vigorous workout routine honed over the years as he tried to find the right formula to keep his body healthy through 162-game seasons.

Beyond that, he may not be all that inclined to assist the organization right now. The relationship between the 35-year-old right-hander and some members of club ownership has become strained since initial plans for his retirement announcement last August fell apart over financial details, according to sources familiar with both sides.

Strasburg is still owed more than $100 million of the $245 million contract he signed following the 2019 World Series, with three years still to go on the deal. Though major-league contracts are guaranteed, a player who voluntarily retires prior to the deal expiring forfeits any remaining salary he’s owed. The exception: If a baseball-related injury forces his premature retirement.

The Nationals, who did not take out an insurance policy on Strasburg’s contract, appear to be asking him to accept less than the full amount he’s still owed. The matter was sent to Major League Baseball and the MLB Players Association after the season, but after review, the team and player were informed it was up to them to settle on their own, according to sources.

Thus did the Nats continue to keep Strasburg on their 40-man roster all offseason, using up a spot that could have gone to an in-house prospect or a free-agent addition. Now that spring training has begun, they are free to place him back on the 60-day injured list, though they probably won’t make that procedural move until they acquire another player who would occupy that spot.

All of which leaves this saga in a new, yet in many ways familiar, predicament. Nobody expects Strasburg to attempt to pitch again, but he remains on the roster, with a fully adorned locker awaiting him should he decide to show up.

“We treat him like every other player on the 40-man roster, and we’ve reached out to him,” Rizzo said. “We’ve given him the invitation, and we’ll see where it takes us.”

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