When the Washington Nationals think a player is essential to their future, they blow away industry expectations, overbid by at least an extra year in their contract offer and then figure out what comes next when the rubble stops bouncing.
At least now Strasburg should pick up the tab for his own statue in front of Nationals Park someday — presumably 60 feet 6 inches from Walter Johnson’s big bronze.
Normally, when a team overbids by at least $50 million for a player who wanted to stay anyway, I’d make fun of it. But sometimes sanity is a poor standard. Sometimes you have to say, “We’ve built something important here, and we’re not going to let it fall apart over money.”
With Strasburg, the next few years look first-rate for the Nats, who have a chance to build a much larger fan base around a signature championship and a homegrown pitching legend. Now the Nats’ core identity of Strasburg, Mad Max and Double Duty Corbin (five times a reliever in October) remains intact.
If the Nats had not signed Strasburg, and not done it early in the offseason, then — with Anthony Rendon’s mind a mystery — everything would have hung in the air.
The risk is huge in giving a seven-year deal to a pitcher who has already worked eight full seasons after ligament replacement surgery. The Nats think the average life of a second elbow is about eight years, though with wide variations. Now they’re banking on Strasburg until he is 38 and in his 15th season with that elbow.
The pitchers Strasburg most resembles statistically through his age-30 season include Scherzer and Roy Halladay. That’s the good news. Others include Jered Weaver, Roy Oswalt, Johnny Cueto, Johan Santana, Chris Sale and David Price.
Why would the Nats go so high so quickly against such evidence?
Because winning the World Series is always expensive. Your key players go up in market value. And the longer you wait to act, the greater the chance of finding yourself in a box canyon facing a disastrous winter with the joy — and value — of your title slashed.
As the free agent market caught fire last week, with talented but never-done-much Zack Wheeler reaching a five-year, $118 million deal with the Philadelphia Phillies, the Nats realized that if they acted fast and spent high, they could lock down a joyous offseason and have an acceptable future, too.
Or, on the other hand, if they gambled on wait-and-see, they might find their roster building paralyzed until February as agent Scott Boras, who reps Gerrit Cole as well as Strasburg and Rendon, played his usual slow-motion tune.
The Nats’ modus operandi is to move first — or last (as they did with Scherzer in 2015). But they prefer first.
So Nats followers won’t spend months feeling jerked around by rumors and confused by moves the Nats make, let’s lay out what is extremely likely to happen.
From now until Rendon signs, Boras will do what he did last year after the Nats signed Corbin for $140 million, then said publicly that they couldn’t afford Bryce Harper, too: leak and spin that the Nats are still “in” on Rendon — that’s his job — and say not to pay any attention to that Mark Lerner guy; he’s only the Nats’ principal owner.
But it’s over.
The Lerners have business methods that have worked well enough to win 730 games in the past eight seasons — second most in Major League Baseball — and raise a World Series trophy. With attendance that has ranked from 11th to 16th (in 2019) during this winning run, the Lerners have consistently had top-10 payrolls but have never stepped far above the competitive balance tax, now at $208 million. It’s a balancing act but one they’ve perfected. Why would they change?
The Nats are now $38.6 million below the tax threshold, according to Baseball Prospectus’s Tax Tracker. Somebody will probably give Rendon a deal much like Strasburg’s — $35 million per year for many years. But that team will not be the Nats.
Why? Because, at this moment, Washington has only two players in hand — Howie Kendrick and rookie Carter Kieboom — who can fill first base, second base and third base. The co-closer of October, Daniel Hudson, is free in the wind, too. And Manager Dave Martinez said this week that he needs two new good relievers.
To illustrate what all that might cost, the Nats could probably fill those voids with 2019 Nats — Ryan Zimmerman, Matt Adams, Hudson and either Asdrúbal Cabrera or Brian Dozier — for $20 million to $25 million. Then they would still have $15 million to upgrade their historically weak bullpen. Now that makes sense.
Before chanting, “The Lerners are billionaires, so just pay Rendon his money!” look ahead just one year. After 2020, the Nats will have to replace or re-sign — in most cases at higher prices — Adam Eaton, Aníbal Sánchez, Sean Doolittle, Kendrick and Kurt Suzuki. Also, Trea Turner and Juan Soto will soon cost much more.
If the Lerners want to blow up the way they have done business and jump to the spending level of the Houston Astros, Boston Red Sox, New York Yankees and Chicago Cubs — who are all above the competitive balance tax threshold already, even though their 2020 rosters are far from complete — then that’s their concern. And I’ll enjoy watching wonderful Rendon at Nationals Park. But my job is to help you see the field of play clearly — by analyzing, not fantasizing.
To feel the full brunt of Rendon’s loss, recall Game 5 of the National League Division Series. With the Nats trailing the Los Angeles Dodgers 3-0, Rendon doubled off Walker Buehler to open the sixth inning and later scored, homered to open the eighth off Clayton Kershaw to make it 3-2, then doubled to put men on second and third with no outs in the 10th to set up Kendrick’s grand slam.
All groan together.
On the other hand, the Nats hope they will emulate the St. Louis Cardinals after Albert Pujols, a much greater player than Rendon, left their 2011 World Series winner at age 31 for $240 million. Since then, St. Louis has gone to a World Series, three NLCS and an NLDS. Even with Mike Trout, Pujols and the Los Angeles Angels have won zero games in the postseason.
Washington fans have a long tradition of disliking (or hating) teams such as the Yankees that have tried to “buy pennants” repeatedly. The Nats won it all in 2019 while about 50 cents below the competitive balance tax. That feels like a slightly cleaner title to me.
Will the Nats go after third baseman Josh Donaldson, who hit 37 homers last year for Atlanta? Even if his price is “only” $25 million a year for several years, he pushes the Nats toward the same issues as Rendon. And he’s 34.
With that $38.6 million remaining under the tax threshold, the Nats have many options. In addition to rebuilding the Culture Club, they should focus on one area: the bullpen. If the Nats improved their horrid 5.66 bullpen ERA to 4.35 next year — the MLB average — they would allow 73 fewer runs!
What are 73 runs worth? Analytics will tell you about eight extra wins. Last year, Rendon was worth about 6.6 wins above replacement.
Baseball is not as simple as my analysis makes it seem — with the Nats on a clear path to a 2020 team similar in ability to the bunch that ended last year on an 86-43 tear. If it were this easy to stay near the top, then more than 12 of the past 50 champions (24 percent) would have gotten back to the World Series.
Nonetheless, feel free to spend the holiday season smiling. The Big Three will be back for flag-raising Opening Day. Most of the core characters who grasped “Fight to the Finish” — but had fun doing it — will probably be back. On paper, the only easy surface on which to play, the addition of Kieboom and a much better bullpen will compensate for Rendon — analytically, though not emotionally.
You can’t have it all. But with a $245 million overpay, the Nats have shown good faith to their fans and ensured that, next year, they will still have an awful lot of weapons to defend — got to get used to saying this — their World Series title.
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