Stephen Strasburg is completely shut down from physical activity again

Stephen Strasburg has not been able to perform any rehabilitation activities for more than a month, according to three people familiar with the situation, increasing doubt that the 34-year-old right-hander will ever pitch again. Strasburg hasn’t appeared in a game since last June, when he attempted to return from surgery for thoracic outlet syndrome. He then missed all of spring training, staying home for the six weeks, due to ongoing health complications.

Three people have described those complications as “severe nerve damage.” As of this week, Strasburg is technically eligible to come off the 60-day injured list he was placed on ahead of Opening Day. But there’s no sign of that happening in the near future, if at all. His current plan, according to a person familiar with his thinking, is to rest and see if he can manage the nerve issues enough to make another attempt at pitching. The righty’s outlook is not promising.

Beyond 2023, Strasburg still has three seasons left on the seven-year, $245 million contract he signed in December 2019, right after he won World Series MVP. But the Nationals do not have any disability insurance on Strasburg’s contract, according to four people familiar with the situation. The premiums would have been extremely high, two people explained, and that’s assuming the team and a company could have agreed on a policy given Strasburg’s age and extensive injury history. And three people familiar with the situation doubt ownership would have spent on top of the $245 million, even if it provided some financial protection in a worst-case scenario.

That’s exactly what has played out since Strasburg signed his mega contract. Earlier this season, he lightly rehabbed at Nationals Park — in the mornings before most people showed up — and at a facility in Northern Virginia. For about 10 days, he made another push to throw off a mound. By mid-April, though, he was doing only lower-body exercises, according to two people familiar with his routine. The idea was to keep his lower half in shape while activating his trunk. But even those lower-body workouts strained the right side of his body because of the nerve damage. Pain, tingling and numbness shut him down again toward the end of the month.

From the archives: Stephen Strasburg gave his body to baseball. Now his future is a mystery.

It was similar to the pain, tingling and numbness that led to surgery for carpal tunnel in the summer of 2020, a procedure Strasburg believes was potentially unnecessary because he could have been operated on for thoracic outlet syndrome instead. And it’s the same pain, tingling and numbness that’s limited him to 31⅓ innings since the title run, 4⅔ of them coming in the lone start he made last year. In 2019, Strasburg made 33 starts and threw a career-high 209 innings in the regular season. He has otherwise logged 30 or more starts in three of his 13 seasons with the Nationals, who selected him with the first pick of the 2009 draft.

He had tried to ramp up three different times this past winter, progressing to multiple bullpen sessions. But after throwing a bullpen in late January, he felt discomfort on his right side and couldn’t continue. The surgery, which he underwent in 2021, removed a rib and two muscles from his neck. As recently as last summer, Strasburg couldn’t stand for long before his right hand went numb. He often had to lie down and press his hand against his chest to be a warped version of comfortable.

Along with team doctors, Strasburg has been regularly advised by Gregory Pearl, who performed his TOS surgery, and Neal ElAttrache, a specialist familiar with his arm and neck. If he gets the green light to rehab again, it would be because they collectively decided another attempt wouldn’t affect his long-term well-being more than his health issues already have.

“At this point, I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to do this consistently on a major league mound again,” Strasburg said in an interview with The Washington Post last September. “But I’m not ready to hang it up quite yet. It’s just kind of trying to not think about that and focus on feeling good and getting a little bit better every single day.”

With Bryce Harper, Trea Turner and Kyle Schwarber returning with the Philadelphia Phillies this weekend, there are many reminders of what the Nationals once were — and how integral Strasburg was to a decade-long run of success. Strasburg and Harper, back-to-back top picks, were the foundation. Strasburg and Turner were key members of the title winning-team. Washington then signed Schwarber in the last winter before its rebuild began, when it was still safe to pencil Strasburg into a half dozen future rotations.

But Strasburg hasn’t traveled with the club, nor been around in the hours before games at any point this season. He did not attend Opening Day. His key card for the players’ entrance is hanging in his locker, right where a staff member put it before an exhibition with the New York Yankees on March 28. Ahead of most series, Manager Dave Martinez provides updates on his injured players, though he’s stopped doing so for Strasburg, the 6-foot-5 elephant in the room.

Nonetheless, a giant poster of Strasburg looms above the center field concourse at Nationals Park. He remains the biggest name on the team.

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