The Stephen Strasburg Era Is Over, What Now?

World Series - Washington Nationals v Houston Astros - Game Two
World Series - Washington Nationals v Houston Astros - Game Two / Elsa/GettyImages

Stephen Strasburg might never pitch again. That's been said several times over the past few years, and with the most recent update on his health the fear is almost absolutely confirmed. As was reported by Jesse Dougherty of the Washington Post, Stras has been shut down completely from throwing for the time being.

If you've followed Strasburg in the time since he signed a 7-year, $245 million contract, this likely comes as no surprise. Nationals fans may have made peace with Strasburg's disappearance already; this season is the fourth season since Strasburg's spectacular 2019 and the fourth season of zero production from the former World Series MVP. This all was foreseeable after he made just two appearances in 2020 and had carpal tunnel surgery, and after five appearances in 2021 preceded a procedure for thoracic outlet syndrome, and after another failed comeback in 2022. Strasburg has technically been on the Nationals for the past three seasons, but the real version of himself is long gone.

Strasburg's health struggles have been a constant through his career, and have at last entirely overwhelmed his ability to compete. The new reports on his health over the past few years have been especially gruesome, with a bevy of painful consequences stemming from multiple surgeries and irreversible nerve damage.

Stephen Strasburg's Career In Review

It's frustrating for Nationals fans to see the early demise of such a terrific career. Most pitchers who are as elite as Strasburg in their 20's are able to be elite in their early 30's, stay strong into their mid-30's, and reach graceful decline phases at the end of their 30's and into their 40's. Not so for Strasburg, who capped off an 8-year run of dominance in his age-30 season that would be the last productive year of his career. It's frustrating that of all the stars to leave DC in free agency, the one who stayed for a long-term deal never truly returned.

The Nationals franchise is inseparable from Stephen Strasburg. When Strasburg arrived, his electric debut previewed the first ever competitive Nationals teams. When he pitched his first full season in 2012 and joined forces with fellow #1 overall pick Bryce Harper, he helped bring bring playoff baseball to Nats Park for the first time. Before Strasburg, the Nationals never made the playoffs, and they haven't made the playoffs since Strasburg's disappearance.

From 2012-2018, Strasburg averaged just over 160 innings per season. His durability was constantly in question since his prospect days, but his performance on the mound was consistently excellent, with a 3.19 ERA and 88 wins in that span. When Max Scherzer came to DC as a co-ace to Strasburg, he received more attention, accolades, and awards, allowing Strasburg and his reserved personality to blossom as a pitcher with the spotlight off of him.

It was easy to doubt Strasburg, whose team had never advanced past the first round of the playoffs, and uncertainty shrouded him and his team when Bryce Harper departed in free agency and Strasburg entered a contract year. The miraculous 2019 season answered all questions, and elevated Strasburg into franchise legend.

We all witnessed the greatest season of Strasburg's career. We saw the culmination of his experiences, of the progression from flamethrowing prospect to young ace to the sophisticated veteran at his peak. His curveball and changeup had been cultivated to perfection and they combined with his ever-present heater to form a world-beating arsenal.

That arsenal was only exactly as good as was necessary. Deep into October, after a fully healthy season and the first-ever pennant run in franchise history, Strasburg was called on to topple one of the greatest lineups of recent memory. Springer, Altuve, Brantley, Bregman, Alvarez, et cetera, each easily conquered by Strasburg in Game 2, and then again in Game 6. Ignited by a maximum pressure environment and bursting with confidence, we saw Strasburg like never before, a champion, and the deserved World Series MVP.

When Strasburg held his trophy and stood awkwardly next to the luxury car he was awarded, everyone knew it was the peak moment of his career. It was the kind of legendary performance that would headline anybody's career. What nobody knew at the time was that it was the end, right then and there, it was over. It was a season that drained everything from his right arm, and after pitching into the 9th inning of a must-win World Series game, the tank was permanently emptied. You could have said at the time that even if Strasburg never pitched again his performance was worth it, but you couldn't have known that it was essentially true.

There's no precedent for Strasburg's career trajectory. Plenty of pitchers have had careers wrecked by injuries, and plenty have suddenly declined at a young age. Strasburg never declined, really. His comeback attempts from 2020-2022 hardly count as part of his career. There was zero trace of the pitcher Strasburg was when he took the mound - the fastball wasn't there, the secondaries weren't there, his confidence wasn't either - his skills didn't get worse, but rather after his surgeries they were gone completely. From what I can research, there has never been a superstar World Series MVP in his prime who ascended to champion and was never heard from again.

To someone who followed the reclusive Strasburg through his whole MLB lifespan, it's a surreal experience to remember the elation of 2019 and the abscence of follow-up. In that way, Strasburg represents the franchise as a whole that has immediately turned from champion to non-participant in competitive play. It is a tragedy, a comedy, and a paradox: there is no logical or statistical explanation, and the medical science behind it only makes it more confusing. It truly feels that the World Series itself consumed Strasburg the baseball player. Strasburg the person persists, suffering through doomed attempts to make good on his post-championship contract.

For the concerns of the 2023 Nationals, closure is all that can be asked for. Forget the salary on the books for the next few years, and consider it a reward for the franchise's first title. It's not as if that money would be directly invested into the current roster, it is better going into the hands of a person that is actually meaningful to Nats fans than remaining with ownership. It's a bad contract, sure, but don't let that tarnish the memories of the 2019 team, of the Nationals before they were stripped of all assets and investment.

The past few years of Nationals baseball have been a slow and deliberate deconstruction of the 2019 miracle. Fans have spent time remembering every moment and every player as they depart one-by-one. The fanbase is fueled by nostalgia as the front office gradually accumulates resources to make a future return to contention. The future of our young players, our prospects, and our ownership is uncertain and unstable. Now that Stephen Strasburg's fate is sealed, I declare the past era to be unofficially closed.

At Nats Park you will see most fans wearing the names of 2019's legends. Howie Kendrick, Ryan Zimmerman, Anibal Sanchez, and Kurt Suzuki have finished their careers. Juan Soto, Anthony Rendon, Trea Turner, and Max Scherzer play for new and better teams. Sean Doolittle and Patrick Corbin remain, but in diminished forms. When I see Strasburg apparel, I feel the joy and the sadness of every up and down I have seen my team go through. What I remember most is an emptying stadium of quiet Houston fans, one bearded pitcher, his socks nearly to his knees, transcending on the spot.