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Stephen Strasburg's Mysterious Retirement

Just a few weeks ago on August 24th, reports surfaced that Washington Nationals pitcher Stephen Strasburg was retiring from baseball. While the news didn’t catch anyone by surprise as the 35-year-old has dealt with significant injuries over the past few years, it was still extremely sad for baseball fans across the country to hear.

Coming out of San Diego State, Strasburg entered the big leagues as one of the most hyped prospects of all time. But unlike some of his fellow #1 overall picks, he more than lived up to the hype. After he led the Nationals to their first and only World Series title in 2019, it appeared Strasburg was potentially on track wear the “Curly W” Nats hat into the Hall of Fame. Unfortunately, injuries got in the way, which leads us to an interesting, yet disheartening development going on in our nation’s capital.

After the Strasburg retirement news in late August, there appeared to be a retirement news conference planned for September 9th at Nationals Park where the team would retire his number and honor his career. However, in the time between August 24th and this past weekend, those plans changed.

Mark Lerner, the owner of the Nationals, recently released the following statement: “While we have been following the process required by the collective bargaining agreement, behind-the-scenes preparations for a press conference had begun internally," Lerner said in a statement. "However, no such event was ever confirmed by the team or promoted publicly” and that reports had “mischaracterized” the situation.

More interestingly than stating there wouldn’t be a retirement press conference for Strasburg, Lerner also said the team “looks forward to seeing Stephen when we (the Nationals) report to Spring Training” in 2024.

After he won World Series MVP honors in 2019, Strasburg signed a 7-year contract worth $245 million to remain in DC. It was at the time and remains the second largest free agent contract ever given to a starting pitcher. Unfortunately, the contract has been a complete disaster for all parties involved as Strasburg only made 8 starts since beginning of the 2020 season. And relevant to the retirement news, there’s still 3 years and $105 million left on the contract that runs through 2026.

While neither the Nationals nor Strasburg’s camp has confirmed the source of the disagreement publicly, it’s not hard to comprehend why the retirement news conference was cancelled. There is a disagreement between the two sides on how his contract will be handled.

According to Britt Ghiroli of The Athletic, the Nationals initially proposed that Strasburg would be paid in full before backtracking and seeking to change the terms of his retirement. Strasburg, represented by Scott Boras, understandably aren’t going to take too kind to the Nats sudden change of plans.

When a player formally retires, they give up the remaining money left on their salary. Buster Posey, for example, walked away from $22 million when he stepped away following the 2021 season. However, if a player suffers a career ending injury, they don’t have to “formally” retire and collect what’s left on their contract. Prince Fielder, who suffered a neck injury in 2016 that ended his career, collected the remaining money owed to him from his $214 million deal signed before the 2012 season.

There is some precedent, however, of players reaching settlements with their respective teams (David Wright with the Mets) or in some cases, giving money back. When Gil Mesch retired in 2011, he gave back the remaining $12 million left on his contract to the Kansas City Royals. Are the Nationals expecting Strasburg to voluntarily give up his future earnings? Absolutely not. But did they hope they could potentially work out a deal where they can pay less than the $105 million plus deferred money? Probably so.

Where things go from here will be worth watching. In addition, the Lerner family has looked into the possibility of selling the franchise recently, but disputes involving the team’s television deal with the Orioles and MASN have gotten in the way. Could Lerner be attempting to minimize the “liability” of Strasburg’s contract to make it a more attractive purchase? Potentially. In addition to cancelling the retirement press conference, the team has also cut some of their scouting staff and their GM, Mike Rizzo remains without a contract beyond 2023. Long story short, there is a lot of uncertainty with the Nationals at the moment.

It’s understandable that the Nationals want to avoid paying the full sum of Strasburg’s contract. It’s also understandable that Strasburg, his agent Scott Boras, and the MLBPA don’t want to walk away from a significant amount of money. Will the Nationals relinquish their position? Will Strasburg be willing to work out a settlement? That’s to be determined. But regardless, it would be a shame if the relationship between the two parties is ruined over this unfortunate situation.

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