“I don’t think about that,” the Washington Nationals’ all-star third baseman said Sunday night after his team’s 7-1 loss to the Houston Astros, which completed a miserable three-game homestand for the Nationals in the middle of the World Series. “You guys know me by now, or at least I hope you know my personality by now. I’m just worried about one day at a time, and whatever happens down the road, it’s not on my mind.”
It may not have crossed his mind, or that of many of the 43,910 in attendance for Game 5. But the fact is, Rendon’s ninth-inning line drive out to right, in the final game at Nationals Park in 2019, could have been — maybe — the last time the home fans see him in a Nationals uniform. Free agency awaits at the conclusion of this World Series, and both its timetable and trajectory, and the question of whether it ends with him back in Washington in 2020, are unknown.
This, in fact, is the week of awkward maybe-goodbyes — maybe it’s goodbye, maybe it’s not — in the World Series, given its unusual confluence of top-shelf, high-profile free agents and the dwindling number of games remaining.
Sunday night also marked a possible end to Gerrit Cole’s tenure in Houston. If it was goodbye — maybe — the ace right-hander turned his final start for the Astros into a gem, delivering seven dominant innings to send the series back to Houston with the Astros holding a 3-2 lead. In the road venue, Cole’s farewell — maybe — was even less ceremonious than Rendon’s. He simply walked off the mound after one last strikeout to end the seventh and into a line of handshakes in his dugout.
“It’s his last start for sure — for this season,” Manager A.J. Hinch told Astros beat writers when asked whether he had considered the possibility it might be Cole’s final start for the franchise. “The reflection on stuff like that has to come at a later date, when and if things change. We haven’t had an emotional conversation about the possibility.”
This World Series is different in that it features the three most highly regarded free agents of the coming market in Rendon, Cole and Nationals right-hander Stephen Strasburg — who is widely expected to exercise an opt-out clause in his contract after the World Series that would make him a free agent.
It is a good time to be the three of them — with a combined payday of half a billion dollars or more coming their way in a matter of months — and it is also a good time to be agent Scott Boras, who represents all three.
Strasburg’s start in Game 6 on Tuesday night in Houston could be — maybe — his own goodbye to the Nationals. He has 72 hours from the final pitch of the World Series to decide whether he is going to opt out of the final four years and $100 million of the $175 million contract he signed in 2016.
Based on Boras’s M.O., he is likely to do so — although Strasburg has already bucked Boras’s tendencies once by signing his 2016 deal without testing free agency — and even if he does opt out, the Nationals could still work out a new deal with him, perhaps by tacking extra years onto the end of the current deal. A similar situation a year ago with Los Angeles Dodgers lefty Clayton Kershaw resulted in him signing a three-year, $93 million extension.
Strasburg’s comfort level with the Nationals, and the fact he recently moved his family to the area from Southern California, has the team feeling confident about its chances of keeping him in the fold.
Under normal circumstances, Boras might have attended one or more World Series games and held court with the media to tout his pending free agents on the teams’ rosters. But with such high-profile clients on both squads — competing with one another on the field and, in the case of Cole and Strasburg, potentially in the marketplace as well — he has stayed away from the series and kept a low media profile.
Boras, who typically represents a handful of the top players in any free agent market, this year has the market for high-end talent more or less cornered. In addition to Cole, Rendon and Strasburg, he also represents lefties Hyun-Jin Ryu and Dallas Keuchel and hired bats Nick Castellanos and Mike Moustakas, as well as designated hitter J.D. Martinez, who is likely to opt out of his deal and go to free agency.
With Boras known to wait as long as he needs to get his clients their money, Major League Baseball officials are anticipating another long, slow-moving free agent market that, like last winter’s, could drag well into the spring.
Once all the pieces fall into place, Cole, 29, is the favorite to wind up with the largest deal of the three, one that is expected to shatter David Price’s seven-year, $217 million deal with Boston as the largest given to a pitcher.
If Cole winds up leading the Astros to a World Series title — he is 4-1 with a 1.72 ERA and 47 strikeouts in 36⅔ innings this postseason — could they really allow him to walk away? Billionaire owner Jim Crane has the wherewithal to keep him, despite owing roughly $68 million apiece to Justin Verlander and Zack Greinke over the next two seasons, particularly given the lucrative revenue streams from this month’s championship push. But the question is whether Crane would be willing to blow past the 2020 luxury-tax threshold of $208 million to make a big play to keep him.
The competition for Cole would be considerable, beginning with the New York Yankees — the team Cole vanquished in the American League Championship Series and one that is already 0 for 2 in trying to acquire him. Cole famously spurned the Yankees as a high schooler after the 2008 draft, choosing to go to UCLA instead; and in January 2018, the Pittsburgh Pirates, who were shopping Cole, chose the Astros’ package over the Yankees’, sending their ace to Houston for four prospects.
But many of Cole’s teammates expect he will wind up somewhere closer to his Southern California roots, with the Los Angeles Angels seemingly making the most sense.
Rendon, too, is likely to be pursued by a sizable pack of some of the most deep-pocketed and motivated teams in the game, with the Dodgers heading the first category and the Texas Rangers, who are moving into a new stadium in 2020, the second. Rendon is a native of Houston.
The Nationals offered Rendon a seven-year deal in the range of $210 million to $215 million, but Boras is thought to be targeting Colorado Rockies third baseman Nolan Arenado’s eight-year, $260 million deal as a comparable.
If Sunday night was goodbye for Rendon — maybe — the moment deserved better for both player and fans. Those who were left in the stands offered little evidence they recognized its import.
Rendon’s liner off Astros reliever Ryan Pressly traveled so quickly, and Rendon himself reacted so slowly out of the box, that he was barely halfway down the first base line when it was caught, ending an 0-for-3 night. He peeled off toward the Nationals’ dugout, and a handful of fans there stood and clapped. Rendon appeared to look in that direction but quickly removed his helmet and disappeared into the dugout.
“I didn’t hear anything,” he said. “There might’ve been [some applause], but I kind of block it out.”
When Rendon returns to Nationals Park at some point in the future, he will be a few hundred million dollars richer. And he very well could be in another team’s uniform.
Sunday night was Rendon’s maybe-goodbye to Washington. But who knows? With a pair of wins in Houston this week, there might still be a chance for a more proper farewell, at a World Series parade down Constitution Avenue.