Shortly after the Nationals announced that Stephen Strasburg was going back on the injured list, the focus from many shifted to his contract.
Strasburg has barely pitched since signing a seven-year, $245 million contract with the Nationals after the 2019 season. He’s dealt with several injuries and undergone two surgeries, causing him to pitch only 311/3 innings in the past two and a half seasons. And the news last week that Strasburg would be going back on the shelf after just his first start of the season was the latest example that his contract could become a problem for the rebuilding organization.
If Nationals fans are wondering what the long-term consequences of Strasburg’s exorbitant contract could be, they won’t have to look far on Tuesday and Wednesday when the club travels for a two-game set against Baltimore.
The Chris Davis contract — considered one of the worst in Major League Baseball history — helped bring on the Orioles’ rebuild in 2018.
While the two franchises and two players have their differences, the impact of the Chris Davis contract on the Orioles could be a sign of things to come for the Nationals as they cut checks for an injured Strasburg.
Strasburg’s deal, which he signed after winning the 2019 World Series MVP award, isn’t why Nationals general manager Mike Rizzo ushered in a rebuild last summer by trading Trea Turner, Max Scherzer and several other players in favor of younger prospects. But the $23 million Washington is paying Strasburg per year through 2026 — as well as the $80 million in deferred money owed to him after his contract is up — could lengthen what Rizzo originally planned to be a short “reboot” into something that more closely resembles the Orioles’ rebuild.
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Paying a slugger like Davis $161 million over seven seasons just to see him hit below .200 and lead the league in strikeout rate has its consequences. When Baltimore gave Davis that contract — the largest in team history — Baltimore was one of the best regular-season teams in the American League for the previous four years. Despite a down 2014 season, Davis was one of the sport’s best sluggers from 2012 to 2015, totaling 159 home runs and 412 RBIs with a .256 batting average.
But Davis’ skills at the plate didn’t exactly age like a fine wine. After hitting 38 long balls in 2016 (the first season of the seven-year deal), his performance rapidly declined. He hit .215 with 26 homers in 2017. Then, from 2018 to 2020, he was arguably the worst hitter in baseball, compiling a dismal .169 average and just 28 home runs in 249 games. He retired last August, but the Orioles are still paying his full salary for the 2022 season — the final year of the ignominious contract.
With Davis’ decline came Baltimore’s rebuild. Over the past five seasons, the Orioles have been arguably the worst team in baseball — essentially on purpose — to retool the organization’s minor-league system. Since 2018, the club has won just 33.9% of its games (208-406), losing 108-plus games in every full season. While the Orioles are showing signs of improvement, they’re still on pace for 90 losses this year.
Since signing Strasburg to the mega-deal, the Nationals are 115-177. No team in the majors has more losses than the Nationals’ 46 this season. They’re on pace for 106 losses, which would be the most in team history since moving to the District.
Of course, no two contracts are the same, and Strasburg still has several years left to return to the pitcher he once was. Also, Davis’ deal was a bust because of his declining performance, while Strasburg thus far hasn’t been worth the money due to a series of unforeseen injuries that are difficult for pitchers to return from. But deals like Davis’ and Strasburg’s (so far) put binds on franchises that are trying to compete while also serving as compelling reasons to tear it all down and rebuild.
The 33-year-old right-hander’s most recent ailment — a stress reaction of his second and third ribs — could be seriously considering it is related to the thoracic outlet syndrome surgery that ended his 2021 campaign, but it also isn’t as disastrous as other injuries could be. Despite all the talk about Strasburg and his contract, Nationals manager Dave Martinez believes his injured ace earned that deal.
“He deserved that contract. He really did,” Martinez said. “You look at what he did. If it wasn’t for him, we don’t win a world championship. Nobody could’ve predicted what has happened.”