If Stephen Strasburg served as Plan A for some teams’ offseason plans, the Nationals’ stunning extension of their homegrown ace left them without a viable Plan B. Strasburg had been poised to be the jewel of the 2017 free agent class among all players, especially pitchers. His removal from the field illustrates just how barren the class of starters was behind him.
It’s hard to say with any confidence which starter becomes the best option available. Andrew Cashner? He’ll only be 30 years old, and he possesses monster raw stuff. But he’s also never surpassed 184 2/3 innings in a season, his current ERA is 4.93 and he owns a career ERA+ – a park-adjusted ERA with league average set at 100 – of 99.
Maybe it’s Edinson Volquez? He’ll be entering his age-33 season, but over the last three seasons — which include 2015 World Series heroics — he’s comprised a 116 ERA+.
Left-hander Rich Hill is in the middle of a career renaissance, having punched up a 2.03 ERA in 11 big league starts since late last season, having finally overcome years of injury hardship. Thing is, it’s happening at age 37.
There are other names. Clay Buchholz has thrived at times in the American League East cauldron, but it’s hard to know what you’re buying on a night-to-night — or even season-to-season — basis. Juan Nicasio looks like he might be the latest pitcher to reclaim his career in Pittsburgh. Jhoulys Chacin is still re-establishing himself after shoulder problems, but he’ll be just 29 next season and has a 118 career ERA+. Charlie Morton, who’ll be 30, was touching 95 mph with his sinker before he blew his hamstring and was lost for the season. R.A. Dickey won a Cy Young just four years ago, but then he’ll be 42.
There are other names, too — Jeremy Hellickson, Matt Latos, Ivan Nova — but what’s the point of continuing? The point is, these are the best bets for starters. They’re all shaky. General managers will be passing jerseys to starting pitchers at news conferences with hands over their eyes.
Strasburg’s removal from the market, then, could make for an unusual and unpredictable trade deadline. Teams that are out of it but need rotation help for 2017 — the Yankees spring vividly to mind — could become buyers on the starting pitching market for players with multiple years of contractual control while selling off position players. The offseason, too, will likely bring significant action in trades, because a trade will be the only way for a team to acquire top-shelf pitching help for 2017.
Teams in need could hope against hope that Japanese phenom Shohei Otani, a 21-year-old who could be one of the best five pitchers in the world, shakes loose this winter. It seems unlikely the Nippon Ham Fighters will post him this offseason, and Otani has said he would still want to hit on days he does not pitch, as he does on many occasions in Japan’s highest level.
The other recourse would be to beef up the bullpen instead. Kenley Jansen and Aroldis Chapman will headline a solid class of relievers, and so teams who foresee trouble with their rotation and can’t swing a deal could attempt to lean harder on their bullpens.
None of those solutions, though, are as simple as finding an ace and offering him a bag of money. It’s one more reason the Nationals were smart — and, given how rarely free agents-to-be sign extensions, fortunate — to lock up Strasburg. Before Strasburg could be the clear-cut star of the free agent class, the Nationals took him off it. He’s theirs, and many, many teams will be wishing they could say that once they start picking through this winter’s batch of available starting pitchers.