Stephen Strasburg injury is Nationals' nightmare

How important is Strasburg to the Nationals? (1:00)

With Stephen Strasburg heading to the disabled list with an upper-back strain, the Baseball Tonight crew examines his importance to the Nationals. (1:00)

Mike Rizzo’s worst nightmare just came true.

Last month, when the Washington Nationals' general manager inked Stephen Strasburg to a seven-year, $175 million contract, it was borderline-shocking on multiple levels. First off, Strasburg was slated to become a free agent after this season and is represented by one Scott Dean Boras, and clients of Scott Dean Boras forgo free agency about as often as Neil Patrick Harris forgoes an opportunity to appear on an awards show. But perhaps even more surprising was the fact that Rizzo and the Nats rolled the dice on Strasburg.

Don’t get me wrong -- when healthy, Strasburg, who this year became the first NL starter in more than three decades to begin a season 10-0, is one of the game’s most dominant hurlers. But over the course of his six-plus big league seasons, the former first overall pick out of San Diego State has spent so much time on the shelf that you’d think he was a book.

The veteran righty missed almost all of 2011 after undergoing Tommy John surgery. After coming back in 2012, he was shut down in the middle of a pennant race for precautionary measures and didn’t pitch in the Nationals’ first-ever postseason appearance. He’s made three separate trips to the DL over the past three years (lat, neck, oblique), has had only one season where he didn’t miss a start (2014), and is coming off a campaign in which he took the hill just 23 times, his lowest total since the Tommy John season. To be sure, there are plenty of less healthy hurlers around the league -- but none of them have contracts that are worth one-sixth of a billion bucks.

Which brings us back to that extension. At the news conference to officially announce his new deal, when asked why he signed early instead of going to free agency, Strasburg essentially said that the grass isn’t always greener. That he and his wife, Rachel, have grown to love D.C. and that they appreciate the way the Nats have looked out for his best interests. As for Boras, he reminded everyone that he works “at the privilege of Stephen and Rachel Strasburg.” In other words, to hear the client and his agent tell it, Strasburg said thanks but no thanks to free agency (in a year, by the way, when his status as pretty much the only elite free-agent hurler would’ve driven up his price who knows how high) simply because everything’s hunky dory in D.C.

While it makes for a nice narrative in today’s mercenary marketplace, it’s hard not to think that Strasburg’s injury history -- and the not-so-small chance of another boo-boo or two this season potentially damaging his free-agent value -- had a lot to do (read: everything) with him opting against free agency.

Now that he’s hurt again, you couldn’t blame Rizzo and the Nationals if they’re feeling a teensy bit anxious about their investment. In and of itself, the injury -- which, for the record, you can file under “U” for upper-back strain -- might not be a big deal. Maybe Strasburg misses just a couple starts (he skipped his second straight turn Sunday), comes back this weekend against the Reds and goes on to win his first Cy Young. Then again, with the All-Star break looming, it wouldn’t come as a surprise to see the Nats keep their 27-year-old asset out until the second half.

Regardless of how things unfold, Strasburg’s latest DL detour is a not-so-subtle reminder that, over the long term, Washington’s $175 million investment was risky business. As for the short term, it’s a right hook to a rotation that was already wobbling. With Max Scherzer serving up homers at an alarming rate and with Gio Gonzalez aggressively regressing to the mean, the Nationals -- who’ve lost seven in a row to shrink their NL East lead from six games to two -- could ill afford to lose their best pitcher.

But that’s exactly what just happened.