The Nationals' $175 million gamble on Stephen Strasburg's elbow

·MLB columnist

No team in baseball treats surgically repaired elbows with the cocksureness of the Washington Nationals. They engaged in a shutdown that angered more Washingtonians than Ted Cruz’s and refused to budge from it despite immense public pressure. They spent not one but two first-round picks on kids who needed Tommy John surgery and watched one develop into an untouchable prospect and the other into a likely major leaguer. What they did Monday is the most cavalier of all, because this bet on themselves – on an elbow – will cost them $175 million.

Stephen Strasburg (AP Photo)
Stephen Strasburg (AP Photo)

The Nationals, Stephen Strasburg and the scar that traces his right elbow – and understand, the scar is more than your average accessory – finalized a seven-year, $175 million contract extension during Strasburg’s start Monday night. The deal will include opt-outs after the third and fourth seasons if the 27-year-old Strasburg decides to test the free-agent market.

Washington lavished enough cash on Strasburg to make what seemed like a free-agency fait accompli instead a monumental signing that smashed the previous record for a Tommy John recipient. Strasburg underwent the surgery during his rookie season in 2010, following his debut as a once-in-a-generation arm and preceding the 160-inning cap in 2012, his first full season back, that kept him out of the Nationals’ aborted playoff run.

So, in a nutshell: The Nationals guaranteed $175 million to a guy best known for the games he didn’t pitch.

All of this would be well and good had Washington not previously cast aspersions on the very sort of pitcher Strasburg is: one with more than half a decade since his Tommy John surgery. As Tom Boswell wrote last year, the Nationals are dubious of pitchers on their second ulnar collateral ligament and eight years removed from their procedure. Strasburg is nearing the sixth anniversary of his, and to pay him more than any pitcher not named Price, Kershaw, Scherzer, Greinke and Verlander – Cy Young winners all – wasn’t necessarily lunacy. Just inconsistency.

And maybe that ends up working. The Nationals are elated that Strasburg is still healthy, still throwing gas, still what they envisioned when his 2012 season ended in the morass of the unknown. It matters not that Strasburg might have stayed healthy even if he pitched; he stayed healthy, period, and that’s the sort of thing that emboldens an organization, even if there’s no causative link to the plan it hatched. Just a right arm that works.

Let’s not forget: Nobody knows Strasburg’s arm like the Nationals. When it hurts, where it gets sore, what treatment works best – all of the essentials for someone with a big scar across his elbow. The organization’s comfort should theoretically speak to the health of the pitcher, no?

Well, all that’s needed to answer that is the other seven-year, $175 million contract in the annals of baseball history. It happened to be given to a pitcher entering his age-27 season, too. Felix Hernandez had agreed to his deal with the Seattle Mariners until his MRI, which, according to a source familiar with it, showed low-grade tears in his ulnar collateral ligament. The contract was held up until Hernandez agreed to add a clause for a $1 million team option should he undergo elbow surgery. Then he got his $175 million.

So, no, a giant sum of money for a pitcher does not necessarily indicate that a team is taking a proper risk. In Seattle’s case, it wanted to lock up the greatest pitcher in franchise history and a potential Hall of Famer. In Washington’s, it sees a rotation headlined by Strasburg, Max Scherzer and Lucas Giolito helping it keep pace with the New York Mets’ as the 2020s dawn.

Giolito is the aforementioned untouchable prospect, a 21-year-old considered by many the game’s best right-hander in the minor leagues. His Tommy John surgery came in 2012. By the time he arrives in the major leagues, he’ll be nearing his four-year anniversary. Not only are those next four years covered by Scherzer's and Strasburg’s contracts, they extend beyond that of Bryce Harper’s, which is to say the Nationals are girding to launch as strong of a case as they can to keep him from leaving following the 2018 season.

Of course, is investing $25 million a year in someone like Strasburg – a pitcher who still has exceeded 200 innings just once, whose ERA hasn’t finished under 3.00 since his surgery, whose theoretical excellence still hasn’t full translated – the sort of investment that would placate Harper? The Nationals’ payroll only will rise so high, and even as Jayson Werth’s contract comes off the books next season, the Nationals still have around $80 million tied up in Strasburg, Scherzer and Ryan Zimmerman alone in 2019, not to mention the $40 million-plus a season Harper is likely to demand.

Mike Rizzo built the Nationals as general manager with two cakewalk draft picks in Strasburg and Harper plus some savvy deal-making. They’ve still yet to win a playoff series under his stewardship, and giving Strasburg a guaranteed $175 million, plus the ability to opt out of it, was among his boldest moves yet, especially for a pitcher four-plus months away from free agency.

Rizzo sees Giolito struggling at Double-A and the other first-round Tommy John case, Erick Fedde, doing the same in Class A, and it’s enough to make anyone wonder: Is there a right thing to do with a Tommy John guy? The answer is: We don’t know. We don’t know about the rehab. We don’t know about the shutdown. We damn sure don’t know about the contract.

So we’re left to watch Stephen Strasburg get $65 million more than his former teammate Jordan Zimmermann, who himself busted the $100 million ceiling for Tommy John guys just a few months ago. And no one will be watching more than the Washington Nationals, who put their money where their mouths weren’t, who placed the sort of bet that’s risky even for them, who’d better hope they know as much as their actions would indicate.