SAN DIEGO — From the beginning of this offseason, when the Washington Nationals were still shirtless and downing beers, there was a narrative that grew into reality at this week’s winter meetings.

The Nationals were always confident they could retain Stephen Strasburg. They were less sure about their chances with Anthony Rendon. The logic was in the two players, their personalities, the comments they had made in the run-up to parallel free agencies. But it was really rooted in a simple fact: The Nationals went into the offseason willing to spend — and spend big — on Strasburg. His seven-year, $245 million contract, agreed upon this past Monday, is Exhibit A. The Nationals made their choice.

And while they wanted to keep Rendon and made an effort to throughout the season, that choice was to remain all in on starting pitching. Rendon wound up signing a seven-year, $245 million deal with the Los Angeles Angels on Wednesday night. The contract appears identical to Strasburg’s on the surface. But a key difference lies in the deferred payments. Rendon’s deal does not include any, according to people with knowledge of the terms, while Strasburg will defer around $80 million to the three years after his contract ends.

The Nationals don’t like to hand out big money without deferrals. That’s how their owners do business, and it was a sticking point in negotiations with both Bryce Harper and Rendon, homegrown stars who departed in back-to-back offseasons. Rendon’s last public offer from the Nationals was for seven years and between $210 million and $215 million, but Rendon was turned away by deferred payments. The Nationals wouldn’t budge. They did, in the meantime, shrink their remaining budget by springing for Strasburg to tie about $604 million in the current contracts for him, Max Scherzer, Patrick Corbin and Aníbal Sánchez. And that was that.

General Manager Mike Rizzo has never been shy about his approach to building a contender. He believes it starts with a strong and often expensive rotation. That worked in 2019, a season that ended with a World Series title and lent credibility to locking up Strasburg long term. But if the question was to chase Strasburg or Rendon — and, to some degree, it was — the Nationals are still one step from validating their decision.

That’s where Josh Donaldson comes in.

Donaldson, 34, is now the best available third baseman. When the Nationals lost Harper last spring, they had Juan Soto and Victor Robles to help fill the void in the outfield. But they don’t have the same insurance behind Rendon. Top prospect Carter Kieboom is expected to get a shot this spring and has been floated as a Rendon replacement, yet he profiles better at second base. Beyond that, the internal options fall somewhere between scarce and nonexistent.

That leaves the Nationals in a nose-dive into the third base market. It is thin behind Donaldson, with Mike Moustakas already signing a four-year, $64 million deal with the Cincinnati Reds. The Nationals are keying on Donaldson, according to multiple people with knowledge of their plans, and the Atlanta Braves, Texas Rangers, Minnesota Twins and Los Angeles Dodgers are also in the mix. Donaldson is looking for a three- to four-year deal and is projected to make around $25 million a season.

That fits in the Nationals’ price range, even if they are intent on staying below the competitive balance tax threshold, set at $208 million for 2020. It is also a critical part of their plans. If they land Donaldson, the towering investment in Strasburg looks a lot smarter. If they don’t, the argument that they should have prioritized Rendon could get a bit louder.

Strasburg’s return restores the Nationals’ biggest strength and means they’ll have one of baseball’s best rotations for the foreseeable future. But the market for starters is deeper than the one for third basemen, and Washington already has Max Scherzer and Patrick Corbin on its roster. Losing Rendon at the expense of keeping Strasburg is tricky to parse. The reverse situation, in which Rendon stays and Strasburg goes elsewhere, would better suit what the Nationals have, what they can feasibly get and how their roster projects for the next half decade. But signing Donaldson would twist that calculus in the Nationals’ favor.

“We feel that we’re in position to improve our roster in a rather quick manner after the winter meetings,” Rizzo said Wednesday afternoon. He had one more night in San Diego before heading back east. The Nationals, to that point, had made five moves and brought back four players from the World Series-winning team. None of those decisions happen in a vacuum.

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