Not even champions can sidestep the reality of baseball’s offseason.
All-star third baseman Anthony Rendon, a National League MVP candidate, is a free agent, and negotiations are “sort of at square one,” according to a person with knowledge of them, though the Nationals remain committed to bringing him back. Longtime face of the franchise Ryan Zimmerman has an $18 million team option for 2020 that won’t be picked up, but both sides remain open to a cheaper short-term deal.
The Nationals will not exercise a 2020 club option on catcher Yan Gomes, according to a person with knowledge of the situation, but Gomes remains interested in returning if the numbers work out. Gomes’s option was for $9 million. Not surprisingly, the Nationals did exercise 2020 options for left-handed reliever Sean Doolittle ($6.5 million) and right fielder Adam Eaton ($9.5 million).
Rendon officially became a free agent Thursday morning, along with postseason star Howie Kendrick, Game 7 closer Daniel Hudson, “Baby Shark” fan favorite Gerardo Parra, second basemen Asdrúbal Cabrera and Brian Dozier, plus pitchers Fernando Rodney, Jeremy Hellickson and Jonny Venters. Strasburg and Gomes lengthened that list by Saturday night. Those close to Strasburg believe he would like to stay in Washington, where he moved his family last offseason and has been since the Nationals drafted him with the first pick in 2009. But the opt-out is also perfectly timed to his career arc.
Strasburg signed a seven-year, $175 million extension in May 2016. He still has four years and $100 million left on that contract. Yet the demand for him may never be higher. Strasburg won World Series MVP honors with two wins against the Houston Astros, including a Game 6 gem that lasted 8⅓ innings. He became the first pitcher to post a 5-0 record in the postseason. He had a 1.98 ERA in six appearances.
He is represented by agent Scott Boras, like Rendon, and it was Boras who negotiated Max Scherzer’s seven-year, $210 million contract in January 2015. Scherzer was 30 and a Cy Young Award winner when he signed that deal. Strasburg is now 31 and a World Series MVP, making it feasible to use Scherzer’s figures as a baseline. Strasburg would be the second-biggest pitcher on the market behind Gerrit Cole. Strasburg’s standout regular season — 33 starts, an NL-leading 209 innings, a 3.32 ERA — was complemented by marked improvements in his demeanor and approach.
“I’ve really learned that if I focus on the things that I can control, and I think I’ve learned that I’m a perfectionist, I’ve learned that I’m a control freak,” Strasburg said after the Nationals won the title. “And in this game it’s very hard to be perfect. It’s very hard to control things. But the one thing that you can control is your approach and how you handle your business off the field. And when you go out there and compete, it’s just about execution.
“And you put in all the work in the offseason, in between starts, to go out there and try and be the best version of yourself. And that’s something you can control every time."
The Nationals’ financial flexibility for Strasburg should fluctuate based on their outlook with Rendon. The third baseman stretched an MVP-caliber season into the World Series. He had five RBI in a Game 6 win. He hit a solo homer in Game 7, kick-starting the offense, and finished the postseason with a .328 average and a 1.003 on-base-plus-slugging percentage.
The Nationals and Rendon’s representation traded offers and counteroffers in the past few months of the regular season. None of those were able to keep Rendon from testing a market that will welcome him as the top available position player. The last proposal from the Nationals, made in early September, was a seven-year deal in the range of $210 million to $215 million. It was equipped with deferrals within seven years of the contract expiring. But it has been apparent since the spring, when negotiations first heated up, that Boras is seeking to beat the eight-year, $260 million extension that Nolan Arenado signed with the Colorado Rockies last February.
That put Arenado’s average annual value at $32.5 million. The Nationals’ latest offer put Rendon right around $30 million. If Washington bumps that up to $35 million, a person with knowledge of negotiations believes a deal could get done. Rendon, 29, has also expressed an interest in retiring young, though it’s often hard to sift through his sarcasm.
When asked during the postseason where he sees himself at age 36, Rendon answered with a laugh, “Hopefully not playing baseball.” He then added, “Probably sitting on the couch hanging out with my kids.”
Strasburg and Rendon have uncommon personalities for professional athletes. They crave being comfortable in their surroundings. They don’t like attention — from the media or otherwise — and neither has made extensive comments on their uncertain future. But they were integral in bringing Washington its first championship in 95 years. They were drafted by the Nationals, developed in their farm system and blossomed into stars on the biggest stage.
Those are just some of the reasons the Nationals have stated, again and again, their intentions to keep Rendon and Strasburg here for a long time. It’s just that doing so has now gotten a lot more complicated.