Nats, Strasburg can't let retirement terms ruin relationship

The statement was released at 5:41 p.m. Friday, roughly 90 minutes before first pitch at Nationals Park, attributed to Mark Lerner and pertaining to one of the most important players in club history.

“Stephen Strasburg is and always will be an important part of the Washington Nationals franchise,” it read. “We support him in any decision he makes and will ensure that he receives what is due to him.

“It is regrettable that private discussions have been made public through anonymous sources attempting to negotiate through the media. While we have been following the process required by the collective bargaining agreement, behind-the-scenes preparations for a press conference had begun internally. However, no such event was ever confirmed by the team or promoted publicly. It is unfortunate that external leaks in the press have mischaracterized these events.”

A rare public pronouncement from the Nats’ managing principal owner, but an understandable one given the confusion over what was supposed to be a formal press conference to announce Strasburg’s retirement later today.

But then came the final two lines of the three-paragraph statement, which Lerner closed with an unexpected bang: “It is our hope that ongoing conversations remain private out of respect for the individuals involved. Until then, we look forward to seeing Stephen when we report to spring training.”

Wait, what? The supposedly retiring right-hander, physically unable to pitch anymore and suffering from nerve damage in his arm, is going to report to West Palm Beach in February?

If you take the statement at face value, yes. If you have a more nuanced understanding of the situation, you understand how unlikely that is.

Strasburg is not going to pitch again, nor is he going to try to pitch again. That much has been obvious for months, ever since his last-ditch attempt to return from the thoracic outlet surgery that derailed his career in 2021 was unsuccessful.

Since that point early in the season, there was only one question that needed to be answered. It wasn’t: Will Strasburg retire? It was: Will he and the Nationals be able to work out a financial arrangement to make the retirement official?

A reminder for those who don’t know: Major League Baseball contracts are fully guaranteed. Strasburg is still owed about $105 million of the $275 million he was given in the seven-year deal he signed in December 2019. But any player who voluntarily retires from MLB forfeits his remaining salary … unless he’s forced into retirement by a debilitating injury.

Clearly, Strasburg’s injury is debilitating. By all accounts, it affects not only his ability to pitch but his ability to live a normal life. But there’s a process by which such a condition needs to be established. And that’s where it starts to get complicated.

The hope all along was that Strasburg and the Nationals would be able to figure out something on their own, perhaps an agreement to pay him in full but spread those payments out over time to lessen the immediate impact on the club. And when word got out two weeks ago that Strasburg had decided to retire and that plans for a press conference were in the works, the assumption was that such a deal had been worked out.

Turns out it hadn’t. As the week played out and no plans were actually announced, questions began to emerge. By Thursday, team officials were acknowledging there would be no press conference Saturday. It would have to be pushed back to a later date.

Then came the inevitable blame game, with multiple national reporters citing sources who said the team had canceled the press conference and was trying to change the terms of a supposed agreement between the two sides. That prompted Lerner to release his statement Friday afternoon, which never mentioned Scott Boras' name but certainly implied it.

So, now what? The insinuation is that the Nationals are going to force Strasburg to resume some kind of rehab program and report to spring training if he wants to keep earning his full paycheck. But to do that, they would need to waste a precious 40-man roster spot on Strasburg all winter. That would be incredibly counterproductive.

It behooves all parties involved to go back to the drawing board and figure something out. They’ve maintained a strong relationship since 2009, from the day he was drafted through the two contract extensions he signed and the World Series MVP award he won.

It’s not worth destroying a relationship with a franchise icon over this.

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