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Mike Rizzo expects Stephen Strasburg, Anthony Rendon discussions to pick up this week

Stephen Strasburg won the World Series MVP award and will now demand top dollar on the free agent market. The Nationals are expected to meet with his agent, Scott Boras, in Scottsdale, Ariz., this week. (Toni L. Sandys/The Washington Post)
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SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. — Mike Rizzo cannot go anywhere at the Omni Resort and Spa without getting a swinging handshake, a pat on the back or a loud “Congratulations!” for winning the World Series. The Washington Nationals’ general manager is fine with that. The reminders will never get old. But being here, at baseball’s annual general managers meetings, is a reminder of how much work is ahead.

And one conversation in Scottsdale this week, one that hadn’t happened as of Tuesday afternoon, could set a lot of that work into motion. Rizzo expects to meet with agent Scott Boras before heading back east Thursday. Boras represents Stephen Strasburg and Anthony Rendon, two of the top available free agents and two players Rizzo drafted and would like to keep in Washington. But that process is only beginning.

“We haven’t touched base as of yet,” Rizzo said of him and Boras. “I’m sure we’ll touch base before we leave here at some point. We’ve got several meetings with several different agents about a bunch of different variety of players.”

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That’s common general manager speak at this time of year. It would not benefit Rizzo to telegraph his plans or progress with any particular player. He noted Tuesday, more than once, that the Nationals have yet to speak with specific targets or their agents. That, of course, went for Strasburg, Rendon and Boras, too. But Rizzo was not shy in saying that Strasburg and Rendon are at the top of his to-do list as he wades into the winter. He called them priorities No. 1 and 1A, in no particular order, along with exploring options for a backup catcher, a first baseman or two, maybe a second baseman, maybe a third baseman, some bench pieces and help in the bullpen and rotation.

It will be a busy offseason no matter what happens with Strasburg and Rendon. Strasburg opted out of the final four years and $100 million of an extension he signed with Washington in 2016. New York Yankees General Manager Brian Cashman expressed interest in Strasburg to a group of reporters Monday night. Any team with pitching needs is likely to feel the same. A common theory is that Strasburg will move quicker than other stars — such as Rendon, starter Gerrit Cole or third baseman Josh Donaldson — but Rizzo didn’t reinforce that. He expects to get a better idea of Strasburg’s plans when he and Boras sit down. He added that it’s possible he meets directly with Strasburg in the near future, given the relationship they have developed across the past decade.

But that doesn’t mean Rizzo feels closer on Strasburg than anyone else.

“We’re not any further down the path with Stras than we are with any other free agent,” Rizzo said. “We’re going to get into the process of looking into free agencies at these meetings, and we’ll have several meetings with different players and kind of flesh out where the market is at this year. Hopefully we can get something done sooner rather than later, but I can’t put a timetable on it.”

This will not be the first time Rizzo and Boras discuss significant business. They could be as familiar with each other as any general manager and agent. Boras has always been with Strasburg and Rendon, and he has represented Bryce Harper since Harper’s career began. He also represents Nationals Juan Soto, Max Scherzer and Erick Fedde, plus three of the top arms in Washington’s minor league system. Then there are the many Boras clients — including Matt Wieters and Rafael Soriano, and Trevor Rosenthal and Jeremy Hellickson last offseason — who Rizzo has signed over the years.

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That doesn’t mean Rizzo gets any special treatment in negotiations. But he understands the agent, and he has a ton of background on the players, and Boras is aware of how the organization operates from the top down. Spending for Strasburg or Rendon, or both, will ultimately be an ownership decision. Boras has a long-standing relationship with Ted Lerner, the Nationals’ founding principal owner, and they have struck many deals. But Lerner ceded control to his son, Mark, in June of 2018 and has been much less involved in major decision-making.

The Nationals offered a seven-year deal worth between $210 million and $215 million to Rendon in early September, according to people with knowledge of the proposal. It was not enough to keep Rendon from testing free agency, but the third baseman still had Boras negotiate with the Nationals until the regular season ended. Strasburg’s situation is different. Because it was not definite that he would opt out, though Washington figured he would, especially after he won World Series MVP, there were no preemptive conversations regarding his future. And that’s why they are set to start now.

The Nationals stayed beneath the competitive balance tax threshold in 2019 and will have their penalties reset as a result. If they spend past it in 2020, with the mark set at $208 million, they would pay 20 percent overage fees. It would have been 50 if they had been over for a third straight season. That could logically help the Nationals retain both Strasburg and Rendon, who could combine to make around $75 million next year. That’s the best-case scenario the Nationals are keying on. Rizzo just didn’t get into how the competitive balance tax affects the math moving forward.

“We’re not sure. We’ll have to see,” Rizzo said when asked if the Nationals could fit both players on their payroll. "It’s all about asset allocation, how things shake out. It’s something that we would love to do, and bring the band back together, but we have to be prudent how we construct this thing.

“Suffice to say, they are special to us and they are terrific players.”

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