Perspective | The Nationals and Stephen Strasburg need to settle their business

Perspective | The Nationals and Stephen Strasburg need to settle their business

Tooba Shakir 54 years ago 0 0

WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. — Stephen Strasburg’s locker is where it always was, just to the right of the entrance to the showers in the Washington Nationals’ clubhouse here. His No. 37 jersey hangs untouched. Pairs of sneakers and spikes sit unworn. Stacks of mail are shoved into the cubby holes above, packages and envelopes, all unopened.

At a Nats’ spring training that’s full of good vibes and hope for a brighter future — “This has been my favorite camp,” Manager Dave Martinez said — there is a link to the past that remains unsettled. Strasburg can no longer pitch. No one disputes that. He is the victim of complications from thoracic outlet syndrome, but is also supposed to be entering the fifth year of a seven-year, $245-million contract.

The Nationals say they want him in camp, if only to help with young pitchers and be used as a sounding board. Strasburg instead is at home with his family.

“We’re having conversations with him,” General Manager Mike Rizzo said. “I think it’s going to end up where we want it to end up. And you know, we’re not going to say much more about that because we don’t want it to be a distraction, and he doesn’t want to be a distraction.”

In a baseball sense, Strasburg is not a distraction. No one is holding a spot in the rotation for him. His career is over — over to the point in which the club approached him last year about announcing he could no longer pitch. Team officials, led by owner Mark Lerner, wanted to honor him with a ceremony at Nationals Park. He was the first pick of the 2009 draft, the first player who made the Nats matter on a national level. He was the MVP of the 2019 World Series. Even with a sad ending, this is a player worthy of a happy celebration.

From there, it got messy. No one is arguing that Strasburg won’t get every last dime in that contract — a contract under which he made the last eight starts of his career, totaling 31⅓ innings. Baseball contracts are guaranteed, so that’s that. But the language and the logistics matter. The Nationals and Strasburg haven’t been able to agree on the latter.

First, the language. It’s unlikely Strasburg will use the word “retire.” When star first baseman Prince Fielder underwent two neck surgeries that left him unable to play for the Texas Rangers in 2016, he held a tearful news conference announcing that fact. But he didn’t retire, because retired players can’t cash their remaining checks, and Fielder’s deal didn’t end until 2020.

What the Nationals want, it seems, is some sort of contribution from Strasburg as long as he’s under contract — which is through the 2026 season. That could come in the form of a trip to spring training in which he, say, helped a young pitcher with his change-up grip, talked to minor leaguers about proper preparation or signed a few autographs. Rizzo opened camp by saying, “I expect him to be here.”

Saturday, the deadline for players on the 40-man roster to report to camp came and went. Strasburg didn’t show. And yet Rizzo said earlier this week, “I think it’s going to work out in the end where he’s going to be happy and we’re going to be happy.”

How? The sense is the club wants Strasburg to contribute somehow, someway. If that’s not by coming to spring training, fine. Strasburg, of course, was never a gregarious sort. Far from it. Maybe dragging him here wouldn’t be fun for him or productive for anyone else.

How else, then, could Strasburg contribute? Maybe he could kick more of his money down the road. The Lerner family is (in)famous for preferring to pay contracts out over time, almost regardless of their size. Indeed, first baseman Joey Gallo — signed this offseason for one year at $5 million — will have his money paid over three years.

Clearly, ownership prefers to pay later rather than now. If that’s true for players on the current roster, why wouldn’t it be true for those who can’t play?

However it happens, this stalemate needs to end, for reasons both professional and personal. This offseason, Strasburg took up a spot on the 40-man roster. That doesn’t matter during the season; the team can place him on the 60-day injured list, which means he comes off the 40-man. But a club that’s rebuilding needs every one of those 40 spots for someone who can contribute, so this can’t spill into another offseason.

Plus, Strasburg played for just one organization in his 13-year career. He shouldn’t have bad feelings toward that franchise as he heads into the private part of his life, raising his family. He should be entered into the team’s ring of honor and be remembered for all he accomplished here, not some unnecessarily acrimonious ending. There should be smiles.

The next milepost in this saga: Opening Day. Major league players don’t receive their salaries until the regular season begins. If a compromise isn’t worked out, the Nats could place Strasburg on the restricted list — which would mean they wouldn’t have to pay him unless and until he reported.

Let’s hope it doesn’t get to that point. Let’s hope that, in the four weeks before then, Strasburg and the Nationals acknowledge what each has meant to the other. He should be remembered for the momentous things he accomplished in his career, not any pettiness — on either side — in the way it ended.

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