A decade ago, Strasburg became one of the first reasons to be at all optimistic about the Washington Nationals. There were times he tested your patience, sure. How distant does that seem? It’s a measure of his transformation, more than complete now, that his seven-year, $245 million contract agreed to Monday is reason for optimism in 2020, and well beyond.
There are cautionary notes, for sure, and we’ll get to them. But what should be heartening to Nationals fans still reveling in the World Series glow is that their club identified its top target, pursued him aggressively and reeled him in with a massive deal that is simultaneously fair-market value and a record total for a pitcher.
Monday arrived because Strasburg opted out of the seven-year, $175 million extension he signed in May 2016 — a deal that worked out well for the Nats, who watched him blossom from fragile to fearsome under the security the deal provided, and brilliantly for Strasburg, who used the first of two opt-outs to cash in on his dominant postseason. Entering free agency was a business decision, and a sensible one. The Nats were neither surprised nor offended.
If you think that decision brought with it trepidation for fans — could the Nats really lose Strasburg? — remember the reactions to the original extension, which came more than a year and a half before Strasburg was due to be a free agent. In the weeks following the deal, I talked to two rival general managers about it. Because Scott Boras, Strasburg’s agent, so rarely agrees to extensions before his clients reach free agency, the execs said some version of the exact same thing: You have to wonder about Strasburg’s health.
It’s one of so many measures that demonstrate how far Strasburg has come, not as much on the mound as in our eyes. Since May 9, 2016 — the day Strasburg walked off the mound at Nationals Park and news of the extension broke — here are the pitchers who have accumulated more wins above replacement, according to FanGraphs, than Strasburg: teammate Max Scherzer, Jacob deGrom of the New York Mets, Boston’s Chris Sale and Houston’s Justin Verlander and Gerrit Cole, who remains on the free agent market and certainly will outdo Strasburg’s deal soon. There’s no one else.
Strasburg’s numbers before he agreed to the extension: a 3.07 ERA and 1.09 walks and hits per inning pitched over 825⅔ innings. Since he signed the extension: a 3.29 ERA and 1.08 WHIP over 613 innings pitched. We know who he is. And there’s a good bet on who he will be — unless he gets better.
Oh, and in the postseason: When he signed the original deal, he had pitched in just one playoff game, the opener against San Francisco in 2014, which he lost. Since: 50⅓ postseason innings across seven starts and one relief appearance. The results: a 1.43 ERA, a .197 batting average against with 69 strikeouts and seven walks. The Nats’ record in those games: 7-1.
They weren’t going to let this guy go.
But what’s next for him? Baseball, we’re told over and over, is getting younger. That’s true — for position players. But Verlander and Scherzer are prime examples of how velocity is carrying into pitchers’ mid-30s and performance hasn’t waned. Yes, Sale broke down last year, and Boston’s $217 million deal for David Price hasn’t been a success. These are individual humans, after all.
But at 31, Strasburg, by now, has command of his body. He has adjusted his training, not to mention his in-game routines (such as throwing exclusively from the stretch). He just led the National League in innings for the first time. His stuff remains ridiculous. His change-up will be devastating in 2020 — and, in all likelihood, 2025.
The cautionary notes, of course, are not only about deals such as those for Price and Sale, but for the later years of long contracts for pitchers. Might the last two seasons of Scherzer’s seven-year deal not match up to the first five? Completely possible, even likely considering his Cy Young Award finishes have been fifth, first, first, second and second. But there’s nothing in Strasburg’s physical or mental makeup that would indicate he is in decline. Not yet, anyway.
So with Priority No. 1 achieved, what’s next for the champs? The winter meetings in San Diego just started. Whatever happens now, don’t buy what Mark Lerner said about being unable to afford both Strasburg and Anthony Rendon, another in a long list of postseason heroes. In an interview last week with NBC Sports Washington, the Nationals’ managing principal owner said, “We really can afford to have one of those two guys.”
Uh, no. Let’s be clear: They can afford to have whomever they want. To say, “We already have a large payroll to begin with,” as Lerner did, can be simultaneously true and irrelevant.
Keep in mind: Strasburg had been on the books at an average annual value of $25 million. He will now be on the books at an average annual value of $35 million. That’s not nothing. But it’s not everything, either.
Will Rendon come in at a similar number? Probably, but it’s not like he played for free a year ago. In his final season before free agency, the third baseman made $18.8 million. So the two of them together might cost, say, $26 million to $27 million more per year than they did in 2019.
Is that prohibitive? Well, there’s no salary cap in baseball. The threshold to go over the competitive balance tax in 2020 is $208 million. Ryan Zimmerman made $18 million in 2019. If they re-sign him for 2020, which is likely, he’ll come in, say, $12 million to $14 million less than that. The Nationals won the World Series in a year in which they shed payroll. They have room to add, and not adding — or making an offer Rendon would consider competitive — is a choice, not a burden.
But Rendon’s future is for another day. The holiday season got less stressful because Strasburg is signed. Maybe five years ago, you couldn’t envision being thrilled to welcome back Stephen Strasburg for $245 million. But maybe five years ago, you couldn’t envision trying to hold a World Series champ together, either.
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