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Strasburg injury delays ROI for Nats

My heart goes out to Washington Nationals fans. It really does. But more so, it goes out to the Nationals front office — they’re the ones with the $15.1 million contract for a stud rookie pitcher for whom they’ll have to wait until the 2012 season to see returns.

And at this point, those returns are no longer guaranteed.

When the news came crashing down on Nationals Nation last week that phenom Stephen Strasburg would undergo Tommy John surgery for his elbow — a procedure that takes 12 to 18 months from which to recover — the collective groan from D.C. could be heard all the way up here in Baltimore.

When I wrote about Strasburg’s debut in June, his impact was estimated at roughly 20,000 more fans in the ballpark for each of his starts and higher ad rates on the MASN television network. In addition to the added merchandise sales, it’s not at all unlikely the Nationals could have earned their $15 million back from Strasburg after the 2011 season.

Looking at it the other way, the projected lost revenue for the team is just as bad. Even if the average ticket price for Strasburg’s starts dips below the roughly $100 estimated earlier this summer, that’s still more than $1 million in ticket sales (based on the Nationals’ average of $51 per ticket multiplied by those 20,000 extra fans) the team is losing for his lost starts.

Translated over the handful of starts Strasburg would have had left this season — considering the maximum pitch count his managers were limiting him to this year and the maybe 15 or 20 starts he would have had next year — that’s a ton of money. Factoring in the lowered ad rates on MASN without the Strasburg draw and there’s more lost revenue.

It’s not out of line to estimate the Nationals are missing out on $25 million or $30 million over these next 18 months without their ace.

But there are two silver linings. One is Bryce Harper, the Nationals’ No. 1 draft pick this year. There’s nothing like a phenom pitcher but Harper’s draw as a power hitter in the minor leagues and when he is called up to the bigs will likely help soften the economic blow. (But let’s not forget Harper didn’t come cheap.)

And the other is if Strasburg’s recovery goes well, this all just could be delayed revenue. The Nationals may get their returns in 2012 and the seasons beyond.

But it still makes it a hard pill to swallow in 2010.