Pitchers on Significant and Lengthy Free Agent Deals, and Absorbing the Risk of Major Injury

For a variety of reasons, I thought the seven-year, $245 million deal the Washington Nationals signed with Stephen Strasburg in the winter of 2019 was an improvident one right from the jump.

In the four years prior to 2019, Strasburg had topped 130 innings just once, and had posted an ERA below 3.46 just once. He was heading into his age 31 season, and while the stuff had always been tantalizing to the highest degree, the health and the results had rarely come close to matching. And yet he was getting one of the largest pitching contracts in history. Hey, get yours man, but from a team perspective, the deal just did not make sense to me.

But even I didn’t expect that, in the first three years of the new contract, Strasburg would manage just eight starts total (with terrible results, to boot). Perhaps there are better, more valuable years ahead, but typically you expect to get the most out of the early years in a deal like this, not the later ones.

Now 34, Strasburg is trying to work his way back from last year’s procedure to address thoracic outlet syndrome, with a number of setbacks since. This article at the Washington Post gets into Strasburg’s career, where things have gone, and what he’s been dealing with to try to get back on, and stay on, the mound. Reading it is what set me down the path of discussing these issues.

This just sounds so awful for him:

Strasburg’s reality, then, is both those pops in his shoulder and the smaller sensations that make it hard to pitch and live. Earlier this season, he couldn’t stand for long without his whole hand going numb. He was only comfortable when lying down, his right hand pressed against his chest. He grew used to using his left hand for basic tasks. Strasburg has pitched 1,525⅓ innings between the regular season and playoffs, each with the Nationals and only 31⅓ since 2019. His plan is to finish out the season trying to regain strength and range of motion in his shoulder. Then he will do another round of meetings with specialists to see if his outlook has improved. One of Strasburg’s worries, even before additional assessments, is the potential for long-term side effects.

Imagine going through years of that, trying to get back to pitching so you can potentially do more long-term damage to your arm and shoulder and overall quality of life. We don’t often think about baseball players as risking their health in the same way we might think about, for example, football players. But I think we sometimes forget about how much these guys do put their bodies through. They do it to compete in a sport they love and to potentially make a lot of money, so I totally get it. But you see a story like Strasburg’s and it just fills you with a lot of divergent thoughts. Here’s hoping the guy can get healthy, and becomes more than just a cautionary tale about his contract.

THAT SAID, his situation does have to offer up the reminder that monster contracts for older pitchers with extensive histories of injury issues (other players, too, I suppose) can come with the risk of an absolute zero. You may get no performance at all, let alone merely disappointing performance.

It’s why a team might be very cautious about giving, for example, Carlos Rodon – who has had substantial arm injury issues in the past – longer than a three or four-year deal. How many years could you absorb an actual zero from that player and not having it seriously damage your ability to compete?

Risk, alone, shouldn’t make these decisions – things don’t always go badly! You don’t assume that you’ll get almost no performance from the player, and you instead make the best projections you can about future health and results. You value it accordingly, and there you go.

But I still raise the story of Strasburg for a reason. I think an organization does have to MAKE SURE they would still be in a position to compete (and spend more) even without the player if they are going to take on that kind of risk. It’s an opportunity for the organizations that have more theoretical payroll room to add where other organizations could not: you use your monetary advantage to take on risks – in exchange for upside – that other teams simply won’t.

Whether the Nationals were the right team to do that at the time with Strasburg, I think can be debated. The impact the signing has had on their last three years, too, can be debated.

I think the Chicago Cubs of 2023, for example, *should* be willing to take that risk on a Rodon or a Jacob deGrom or whoever you want to talk about in that tier. In this market, you’re going to have to take on some serious injury risk if you want to land a tip-top arm. And, in so doing, the Cubs should also be prepared for the possibility that there may be years where that arm does not contribute, and – critically – that possible future disaster alone cannot be used as a reason not to compete overall in that season. Otherwise, you have no business being in on these kinds of deals in the first place.

written by

Brett Taylor is the Lead Cubs Writer at Bleacher Nation, and you can find him on Twitter at @BleacherNation and on LinkedIn here. Brett is also the founder of Bleacher Nation, which opened up shop in 2008 as an independent blog about the Chicago Cubs. Later growing to incorporate coverage of other Chicago sports, Bleacher Nation is now one of the largest regional sports blogs on the web.

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