It had become a ritual for the Strasburgs of San Diego, an annual opportunity for a young family to sort out business, to assess the past year and look toward the future. Stephen and Rachel, parents to 2-year-old Raegan, would meet for dinner at King’s Fish House with his agent, Scott Boras, in mid-February, before heading to Viera, Fla., and spring training with the Washington Nationals.
Boras and Scott Chiamparino, a top lieutenant, had driven from his Newport Beach offices. They chose King’s for mutual convenience — a 10-minute drive from the Strasburgs’ north San Diego offseason home, just off the 405 for Boras — and the food. They devoured plates of popcorn shrimp, crab Louie salad, clam chowder, fried fish and, for the health-conscious Strasburg, grilled salmon. Typically, they would use the meeting to discuss the specifics of Strasburg’s arbitration deal. This time, both Boras and Strasburg entered the meal with grander ideas.
Boras already had engaged in preliminary conversations with top Nationals officials, in both the front office and ownership, regarding signing Strasburg to a long-term contract extension. Strasburg, too, had spent the winter pondering the possibility, weighing his contentment in a city far away from the West Coast of his childhood that had slowly and unexpectedly come to feel like home. Free agency beckoned, but he felt the pull of comfort and familiarity. He wanted, he told Boras over fish and cocktail sauce, to stay in Washington.
When Boras left King’s, walking back to his car under the Southern California moonlight, he believed absolutely something no one else in the baseball world saw coming, even months later, until the news broke Monday night as Strasburg pitched at Nationals Park: Strasburg and the Nationals, he thought, would reach a long-term agreement to extend his contract. He phoned Ted Lerner, the Nationals’ managing principal owner.
“I think we have an opportunity to put this thing together,” Boras told him.
The following account, based on interviews with people directly and indirectly involved on both sides of the negotiations, describes how Strasburg, a former No. 1 overall pick as one of the most heralded young pitchers in a generation, and the Nationals agreed on a complex, seven-year extension worth $175 million. The dealings offer a window into the often fruitful and uncommonly close relationship between Lerner and Boras, a show of Strasburg’s affinity for Washington and a potential road map for future negotiations over a contract extension for Bryce Harper, Washington’s other No. 1 pick and franchise pillar represented by Boras.
The discussions started Jan. 15, a busy day across baseball, the deadline to exchange contract figures for teams and players for salary arbitration. “Frantic Friday, man,” Nationals General Manager Mike Rizzo said. As Rizzo and Boras negotiated one-year deals for some of Boras’s Nationals clients — Danny Espinosa, Anthony Rendon and Strasburg himself — Rizzo broached Strasburg’s future.
Although Strasburg, a natural introvert, had been slow to adjust to public life, Rizzo had seen subtle changes. In recent years, his interactions in Washington gave Rizzo a sense he had grown comfortable in the city. Even though Strasburg had just one season remaining before free agency, a stage at which almost all players choose to have all 30 teams bid on them, Rizzo believed Strasburg might be interested in a long-term deal.
The suggestion didn’t surprise Boras. The seed had been planted back in November, when Boras and Lerner met at the owners meetings in Boca Raton, Fla. Lerner, the 90-year-old Washington native who became one of America’s wealthiest men through a real estate business he began with a loan from his wife, Annette, outlines his offseason vision at their annual discussion. Boras, the 63-year-old former Class AA infielder who became one of baseball’s most powerful figures, pitches Lerner on available clients.
“They have an incredible relationship,” said Mark Lerner, a Nationals principal owner and Ted’s son. “Scott really respects my dad and what he’s built over the years from nothing. They enjoy the banter back and forth. It’s an interesting relationship. They know how to get things done.”
Boras explained how Baltimore Orioles slugger Chris Davis would fit into Washington’s lineup, hitting behind Harper. Lerner countered by saying he did not want an exorbitant contract like Davis’s tying up long-term payroll that would hinder signing Strasburg or Harper, who is scheduled to become a free agent after the 2018 season. Boras made a mental note about Lerner’s desire to lock up Strasburg. Both men knew they would be in touch over the winter.
On the day of the arbitration deadline, the idea resurfaced. After Rizzo and Boras talked, Rizzo informed Lerner he should contact Boras. Lerner called Boras and invited him to his Palm Springs, Calif., home. “Come look at some art,” Lerner told him.
More than the public realized, Lerner viewed Strasburg with great affection. Strasburg in his eyes represented the growth of his franchise, a first overall pick who had validated the Nationals when he signed out of San Diego State, a foundational superstar who brought national attention with his sensational debut at Nationals Park in 2010.
Third baseman Ryan Zimmerman was a National when the Lerner family bought the team, so Strasburg was the Lerners’ first great player and biggest splash. More than that, Lerner admired how Strasburg and Rachel lived quiet and humble lives, unchanged by his stature. He liked them personally and appreciated what Strasburg meant to his team.
In early February, Boras drove the two hours from his Newport Beach office to Palm Desert, the town next to Palm Springs. He met Lerner and Annette at Wolfgang Puck’s WP Kitchen + Bar. Over grilled shrimp and pasta, Annette chatted up Boras about art. Ted talked about baseball philosophy and a common perception: that Boras refuses to sign contract extensions, determined instead to take players to free agency. Boras insisted otherwise.
“No, I work for players,” he told Lerner. “It’s up to them what they want to do.” Boras told the Lerners he would speak with Strasburg about an extension. The dinner at King’s Fish House several days later would be the setting.
The security of a deal, Boras told Strasburg that evening, would lead to happiness and relaxed performance. He laid out the business model of what an extension would look like, telling Strasburg he could expect seven years, with an opt-out clause that would allow him to reenter the free agent market.
Over the winter, Strasburg had asked himself a simple question: “Why do I play?” He determined he wanted to win and to enjoy teammates. Both, he believed, could be accomplished with the Nationals. Strasburg also appreciated how the Nationals took care of his body. The team’s unprecedented decision to shut down Strasburg in September 2012, in the middle of their first playoff run, following his recovery from arm surgery bothered the right-hander then. But as time passed, Strasburg came to peace with the reasoning.
The baseball world thought Strasburg wanted to bolt for his home state in free agency. Even close friends admitted this week that they figured Strasburg would end up in California. The assumptions were wrong, misguided speculation about a cypher. He expressed to Boras a desire to stay.
With Strasburg’s blessing, Boras could begin full negotiations. With the Nationals, that meant a kind of triangular discussion. Over the years, as Boras clients Jayson Werth, Rafael Soriano and Max Scherzer signed high-profile free agent deals, the Nationals had developed an unofficial system for dealing with Boras. Rizzo and Lerner would talk about baseball markets and contractual guidelines. Boras would meet in person with Lerner. Lerner and Rizzo would debrief.
So when Lerner told Rizzo he wanted to offer Strasburg a five-year extension worth $100 million, Rizzo had to let him down easy — that just wasn’t market value.
Days later, Boras was driving up Frank Sinatra Drive to Tamarisk Country Club, where the Lerners had long been members, a course not far from their 9,500-square foot, six-bedroom Palm Springs home. Boras had met Ted and Annette at the club often enough to know how lunch would go: No matter how much he resisted or explained that he doesn’t eat bread, they would make him try Tamarisk’s renowned cheese bread. They chatted about golf and business philosophy and competition.
They retreated to the Lerners’ home, where Boras had negotiated many deals and taken many meetings. As per their custom, Annette showed Boras one piece from her self-curated collection — a sculpture, on this day — and explained its history and how she had acquired it at auction. At 4 p.m., the Lerners’ in-home chef prepared coffee and crispy cinnamon cookies. The meetings had grown to always be a mix of business and friendship.
“It’s book-worthy,” Boras said. “The rare thing in life is that — who gets to talk to someone who is in gym class when Pearl Harbor is bombed and what Roosevelt said and his gym coach is Red Auerbach? Seriously. Ted’s amazing because you sit and you talk to him and you’re going through things for an hour, and then you get 15 minutes of things you’ve never heard anybody say in your life.”
For two hours, Boras showed Lerner binders of information about Strasburg’s potential, the needs of opposing teams and revenues across the sport. Lerner wanted to compare Strasburg’s potential deal to those free agent deals signed by former National Jordan Zimmermann with the Detroit Tigers (five years, $110 million ) and Johnny Cueto with the San Francisco Giants (six years, $130 million ). Those pitchers, Lerner reasoned, had accomplished more than Strasburg, who had yet to win more than 15 games in a season and who had tossed more than 200 innings just once.
Boras showed him the recent contracts of the game’s best pitchers — Clayton Kershaw, Scherzer, Zack Greinke, all Cy Young winners — and told him to think more along those lines. Boras agreed that Strasburg could not match their accomplishments, and his 2010 Tommy John surgery added another risk. But Boras laid out a case for why Strasburg fit between the groups: If his potential filled in, he would accomplish all that those pitchers had and maybe more. He sold Strasburg to Lerner, really, on spec.
Behind the scenes, the Nationals’ front office treated Strasburg’s extension like an arbitration case, looking up comparable players and contracts. It had reached a conclusion similar to Boras’s, settling on pitchers Justin Verlander with the Detroit Tigers (seven years, $180 million ) and Felix Hernandez with the Seattle Mariners (seven years, $175 million ) as models. Even though those two had accomplished more than Strasburg, revenues had increased across the sport since they signed their deals.
The key to the negotiation for Boras was to create a contract that could provide Strasburg with long-term comfort but also keep alive the chance to enter free agency after he had accomplished more. He envisioned Strasburg, 27, having a minimum of about $220 million guaranteed in his entire career, plus the chance to hit the market at 30 or 31 — as Scherzer and Greinke had done — with a baseline salary somewhere around $25 million. He proposed a “rolling” opt-out clause that would allow Strasburg to break a contract after three or four seasons.
Boras made three more trips to Palm Springs over the next two months, all the same routine — art and crispy cinnamon treats and hammering out the details of Strasburg’s contract. Lerner wanted money deferred to years after the contract’s conclusion, a common arrangement between the sides on prior deals. Boras would accept deferrals in exchange for performance bonuses — $1 million for every season in which Strasburg reaches 180 innings pitched — and a $10 million signing bonus to offset the lesser present-day value. Lerner agreed.
“It’s a pretty fascinating process when the two of them go at it,” Mark Lerner said. “My dad, he’s always loved to negotiate, and that’s a classic thing for Scott.”
Lerner and Boras had done enough contracts that those seeming intricacies came together quickly; they even used Scherzer’s contract as a blueprint for how Strasburg would be paid the deferred money. Lerner had made a fortune on far more complex real estate contracts.
The hardest part was haggling over the average annual value and total years. Back in February at King’s, Boras had told Strasburg he could expect seven years. He would not settle for less, even though Lerner had a hard time agreeing to even six.
During the last week of April, with the Miami Marlins in Los Angeles to play the Dodgers, Boras was eating lunch with client Jose Fernandez, the Marlins’ young pitching ace. He saw a call on his phone from Lerner’s number. He excused himself and listened.
Lerner agreed to a seventh year. They had a deal.
Strasburg received a text message from Boras asking him to call. When Boras gave him the news, Strasburg was elated. He called his family for their final thoughts before telling Boras “yes,” to proceed.
Finishing touches still remained. Strasburg would have to take a physical. Because the Nationals had never given a player an opt-out clause, it took their legal team a week to write and review the language. Meanwhile, the Nationals’ season rolled on.
Strasburg pitched for two weeks with the cloud of the near-finalized contract looming over his head. He told Boras early in the process to leave him out to avoid distractions. But Boras had to involve him in the latter stages.
“It’s hard to block something like this out because it’s your future and your kids’ kids’ future, too,” Strasburg said. “The bottom line is I play this game because I’m a competitor, I love the guy next to me and I want to do everything I can to help this team win.”
Boras’s stomach was in knots as he watched Strasburg make two starts before the contract was done. Any pitch could pop a ligament or a false step blow out a knee and could spell doom for the deal. The potential for cruel fate is why Boras doesn’t like to work out contracts midseason.
Baseball is a small world, so even a whiff of a potential extension could spread. But the Nationals, Boras and Strasburg kept quiet. Well-connected team employees and most of Strasburg’s teammates didn’t know.
“A couple guys knew,” Strasburg said. “But ones that did know knew to kind of keep it hush-hush. Some guys asked me how I was doing when I left [for my physical], and I said, ‘Nothing serious.’ They didn’t really pry after that.”
The Nationals were concerned questions would arise April 30, the second day of a three-game series in St. Louis. Strasburg had started the game the night before, striking out nine Cardinals and allowing two runs over seven innings in the 5-4 Nationals win.
“They say Washington is a town of secrets,” Boras said. “I now believe that it is. I was amazed. I told Rizz, ‘There’s no chance we keep this thing quiet for seven or eight days.’ ”
A first-class ticket in hand that Saturday morning, Strasburg boarded the first flight from St. Louis to Reagan National Airport. Team physician Robin West, an orthopedic surgeon at Inova Fairfax Hospital, spearheaded Strasburg’s physical. Among other tests, Strasburg spent two hours in an MRI machine. “Pretty much an all-day affair,” he said.
The Nationals are wary of the life span of a second elbow but believed in Strasburg’s health. Despite the 2010 elbow reconstruction and 2013 bone chip removal, the Nationals were pleased with Strasburg’s clean test results.
Strasburg could have been spotted in Washington while the team was in St. Louis, but his presence remained unreported, and he never worried about it, anyway. He left on the last flight from Reagan National the same day of the physical. Exhausted, he rejoined the rest of the team at the Westin St. Louis and went straight to sleep. He awoke Sunday and headed to Busch Stadium, happy he could throw his bullpen session as scheduled.
Strasburg signed the letter of agreement a week later. Word of the extension first came out during the third inning of Strasburg’s start Monday, delivered in a tweet by The Washington Post’s Chelsea Janes at 8:06 p.m. Boras was at the game but unseen by reporters. After Strasburg was pulled in the eighth inning, he heard a fan above the Nationals’ dugout say congratulations. “The light bulb went off,” he said.
On Tuesday afternoon, Strasburg formally signed the contract in the executive offices on the second floor of Nationals Park. It reminded him of the day seven years ago when he had signed the draft contract that made him a professional baseball player. He had, in those seven years, become a star, a lightning rod for controversy, a father, a dominant big league pitcher, a man.
And now, as his pen met paper, he would stay a Washington National.
Barry Svrluga, Chelsea Janes and Thomas Boswell contributed to this report.