Strasburg's fate seems clear, but path to get there is complex

The notion that Stephen Strasburg might still come back to pitch for the Nationals again, sadly, seemed to pass months ago.

When manager Davey Martinez revealed on the first day of spring training Strasburg was unable to complete an offseason bullpen session without a recurrence of the nerve pain that has plagued him for several years, the writing was on the wall.

And when general manager Mike Rizzo said on Opening Day the 34-year-old needed to rehab his injury “if nothing more, just to play with his children, get back to regular life,” it underscored the severity of the situation, far beyond anything that takes place on a baseball field.

Strasburg has not appeared at Nationals Park this season during the hours leading up to, during or after a home game. His locker remains where it has always been, his jersey and belongings neatly arranged, essentially untouched. Teammates he barely knows walk past it every day, with little reason to think about the pitcher whose name hangs above it.

Strasburg isn’t currently participating in any rehabilitation activities, as The Washington Post reported over the weekend. He resides on the 60-day injured list, technically still a part of the team but not on anybody’s immediate radar.

There has been no formal announcement about his future because there’s still no way to know exactly how this story will end. The final outcome may seem obvious, but the path that will get Strasburg and the Nationals there is complex.

Having famously opted out of his previous $175 million contract on the evening of the 2019 World Series parade, then re-signed a month later for seven years and $275 million more, Strasburg is still owed a whole lot of money. That deal, which guarantees him $35 million annually (minus roughly $11.4 million deferred each year, to be paid through 2029), has not even reached its midway point yet.

Any active major leaguer who announces his retirement forfeits any money still owed to him on his current contract. Strasburg isn’t about to do that, nor would his agent, Scott Boras, let him do that. But a player can’t just be stashed away on the IL for another 3 1/2 years if he’s physically unable to rehab. Besides, the Nats would have to use one of their precious 40-man roster spots on him each winter, when there is no IL.

So, the only reasonable way this matter gets resolved is if the two sides come to some sort of agreement between themselves. Which, of course, is tremendously complicated.

It would be somewhat easier had the Nationals taken out a disability insurance policy on Strasburg when they signed him to his latest contract. But as the Post reported, and as sources familiar with the arrangement confirmed, the team decided against it.

The cost of such an insurance policy, according to sources familiar with this and other instances around the sport, extends well into eight figures. The premium in this case likely would have exceeded $20 million. And even then, insurance companies may not be willing to cover career-ending injuries to certain body parts (like the arm of a pitcher who has undergone several surgeries over the last decade).

In hindsight, the policy would’ve been worth it for the Nationals, who wouldn’t be on the hook for so much of the money still owed Strasburg. At the time, there was some logic toward not getting the insurance.

All of that has slowed the process down, according to sources familiar with discussions that already began between the two sides earlier this year.

There are few comparable examples in recent baseball history to offer guidance for this case.

Chris Davis was forced into early retirement after the 2021 season with one year still to go on his $161 million deal. The Orioles paid him his full 2022 salary and are still paying him for years to come because much of his original contract was deferred.

Prince Fielder announced his retirement from the Rangers in 2016 after undergoing two neck surgeries with four years still remaining on the $214 million deal, he signed in 2012 with the Tigers. As part of his 2014 trade to Texas, Detroit covered $6 million of Fielder’s annual salary. The Rangers were responsible for the remaining $18 million he made each season, but because they took out a policy on him, $9 million annually is covered by insurance.

Unless he agrees to forfeit some portion of his deal, Strasburg is most likely going to get all of the money he’s still owed. It’s just a matter of how and when he gets it, and whether the Nationals can find some creative solution to minimize the financial pain.

None of which matters, of course, as much as the physical pain Strasburg is still in. He gave everything he had to the team in 2019 to help capture a World Series title. He hasn’t been able to give much of anything since.

It all makes for an awfully sad – and, sadly, inevitable – conclusion to his baseball life story.

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