'His Heart Was Here': Inside Stephen Strasburg's Return to the Nationals

More than money and a chance to win again, Stephen Strasburg's return to the Nationals is about comfort. He decided to stay in D.C. because his future has always mattered to them.
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SAN DIEGO — The Nationals may have cost themselves a World Series in 2012. But they bought themselves a World Series MVP. Stephen Strasburg, who re-signed with Washington for seven years and $245 million—the largest contract ever for a pitcher—is returning to D.C. in part because of a decision that initially infuriated him.

The money is nice. The team is well-positioned to win again. But the Nationals gave Strasburg something even more important on Monday, when they offered him the deal that will keep him in Washington for the rest of his career: He knows them, and they know him.

They knew that, although he exercised the opt-out clause in the seven-year, $175 million extension he signed in 2016, Strasburg wanted to stay with the organization that drafted him No. 1 in ’09. They knew that he wanted to stay in the house he and his wife, Rachel, bought in the D.C. area. They knew that he liked saying hello to the same clubhouse guys who have worked at Nationals Park since he debuted in ’10.

“His heart was here,” said manager Dave Martinez, five weeks off the franchise’s first championship, as the Winter Meetings opened.

The Nationals knew something else: Strasburg wanted this done. During negotiations, he asked for the team to open the ballpark every day so he could work out. So when GM Mike Rizzo and managing principal owner Mark Lerner identified Strasburg as their top priority this offseason, they decided to act like it. They began discussing a potential deal as the 2019 season closed, and they talked in earnest after Strasburg officially opted out on Nov. 2. That urgency appealed to Strasburg, if not exactly to his agent.

Scott Boras famously encourages his clients to wait out the market, preparing them emotionally and physically not to sign until spring training begins. In 2018, DH J.D. Martinez inked his five-year, $110 million deal with the Red Sox on Feb. 26. Last year, rightfielder Bryce Harper signed for 13 years and $330 million—a North American sports free-agent record—but the deal took until Feb. 28. When a reporter asked Boras why the Strasburg contract took a while, the agent cackled.

“Took a while?” he said. “I don't know where you've been the last two years, but this is like the beginning of the summer for me.”

Boras might have preferred to linger, to continue using the fact that he represents both Strasburg and Gerrit Cole, the former Astros righty who may command as much as $300 million, if not more, to drive up the price for both. He convinced Harper, who also dreamed of a Nationals reunion, to spurn Washington’s 10-year, $300 million offer last year, reminding him that with $100 million deferred, the present value was closer to $184 million. Strasburg’s deal includes deferred money, too, which he will receive with interest. But Boras works for Strasburg, and Strasburg wanted to return to D.C.

Which brings us to the worst thing the Nationals ever did to him—and also the best. In August 2010, the young ace tore his right UCL. Heading into ’12, the Nationals consulted with Boras and announced the infamous Strasburg Shutdown: He would throw 160 or so innings, and then stop, regardless of the team’s position. Strasburg starred that season, striking out 197 batters in only 28 starts. He lobbied Rizzo regularly: I’m fine. Let me pitch. Rizzo held firm.

“I don’t know if I’m ever going to accept it, to be honest,” Strasburg told reporters after his last outing. “You don’t grow up dreaming of playing in the big leagues to get shut down when the games start to matter.” The Nationals made the playoffs for the first time since they moved to D.C. in ’05. Strasburg watched as they fell in five games in the NLDS.

They saw the postseason again in 2014 and ’16 and ’17. Each year ended in heartbreak, and always in the first round. Then came ’19. Strasburg embarrassed the Brewers. He baffled the Dodgers. He silenced the Cardinals. He flummoxed the Astros. He went 5–0 to bring his career postseason ERA to 1.46 and win World Series MVP.

All October, he refused to discuss the Shutdown. “[I] try not to look in the past, try not to look in the future, really just try and be in the moment,” he said. “Once you start thinking about how things could have been or what things might happen, it takes your focus away from what your job is.”

But somewhere along the way, he began to feel grateful that his bosses took the long view. His heart was here, but so was his arm, thanks to those weeks on the bench. And in the end, Boras said, the Nationals’ caution helped them keep him. “To establish a legacy and wear the curly W for his career was something that was very important to him,” Boras said. “And I think it was because he knew that people in this organization cared deeply about him and always cared about his interests and the interests of his family.”

The Nationals behaved as if Strasburg’s future mattered to them. So he decided to give it to them.