Spring training storylines: Strasburg’s return from injury

Would you believe we’ve reached the final countdown to spring training? That’s right, pitchers and catchers are holding their first official workout in West Palm Beach, Fla., in two days. So it’s time to count down the Nationals’ top storylines of the spring. We continue today with Stephen Strasburg’s return from carpal tunnel surgery ...

Stephen Strasburg pitched a career-high 209 innings in 2019, plus another 36 1/3 in the postseason, and the Nationals went on to win the World Series. Strasburg then pitched a career-low five innings in 2020, and perhaps not surprisingly, the Nats finished with their first losing record in nine years.

Maybe it’s too simplistic to attribute the team’s final success each of the last two seasons entirely to Strasburg’s health and performance, but there’s certainly some correlation there. Few members of the roster were as critical to the Nationals’ championship run as Strasburg, and perhaps nobody was missed more last summer than the veteran right-hander.

So it’s fair to say there may be no more important person taking the fields in West Palm Beach, Fla., this week than Strasburg, who will return from carpal tunnel surgery in his right wrist and once again attempt to help lead the Nats pitching staff.

In a career littered with injuries major and minor, Strasburg’s wrist ailment last summer was both unusual and devastating for the club.

He had to be scratched from his season debut, and though he returned to make two starts, he struggled in the first and then lasted only three batters in the second before trudging off the mound with a familiar look of disgust.

The Nationals would diagnose the injury as carpal tunnel neuritis, requiring a surgery not all that uncommon for office workers who type eight hours a day, but extremely rare for professional athletes.

Thumbnail image for Strasburg-Delivers-Gray-Baltimore-Sidebar.jpgStrasburg might have taken a different course of action had the 2020 season been full length. But the 60-game schedule left him believing it wasn’t worth the risk.

“To be frank, this season’s kind of a mess to begin with,” he said July 25 after getting scratched from his debut. “I’ve got to think about big picture here. It’s my career, and I know that, in the long run, it’s important to try to make as many starts as you can. By putting yourself in a compromising position now, I don’t know if it’s really the best way moving forward.”

Strasburg spoke publicly only once more after that, Aug. 9 following his first of two starts against the Orioles. He hasn’t been interviewed since despite requests by reporters and the team’s public relations staff. So it’s difficult to know exactly what we can expect from him when camp opens this week.

By all accounts, Strasburg is healthy. One source close to the right-hander said he had a normal offseason and is 100 percent good to go this spring, with no restrictions. Then again, until he takes the mound and faces live hitters with full effort, then returns to do it again five days later, nobody will be able to say with full confidence he’s fine.

Suffice it to say, the Nationals really need him to be fine. Strasburg is being counted on to make 30 or more starts along with Max Scherzer, Patrick Corbin and Jon Lester and elevate this rotation back to the elite status it has usually held throughout his career.

On a broader level, the Nats need Strasburg to be good not just to boost their chances of success this season but to justify the $245 million contract they signed him to in Dec. 2019. The 32-year-old is making an average of $35 million per season through 2026. That deal only works for the club if he stays healthy for the long term.

In a best-case scenario, Strasburg takes the mound this spring and proves the wrist injury is behind him, then tops the 200-inning mark thanks to a fresh arm that essentially had a year off.

But as anyone who has followed the Nationals for the last decade can attest, it’s never safe to assume the best-case scenario with Strasburg. Hope for the best, yes. But be mentally prepared for something less than that.

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