At times Thursday afternoon, Nationals Park grew inappropriately quiet given the magnitude of the pitching matchup and the uniquely hopeful buzz reserved annually for Opening Day. But before each of Anthony Rendon’s four at-bats — four at-bats that settled silently in this 2-0 loss to the New York Mets — a group of fans in the stadium’s upper reaches behind home plate stood and chanted a simple message: “Lock him up! Lock him up!”
On the mound for the Mets was a scintillating right-hander, Jacob deGrom, who was both locked in and locked up. Two days before the season began, deGrom failed to join the Mets for a public workout in Syracuse, N.Y., home to the club’s Class AAA affiliate. The reason: He was back in Florida, working with his agent on negotiating a five-year, $137.5 million contract extension with the Mets front office and ownership.
The effect of such security is obvious for a player: Never worry about a bill for the rest of your life, order the most expensive steak on the menu every time you sit down to dinner, and just go pitch. What’s often overlooked — and what pertains to the Nationals more than the frustrations of a season-opening loss to a division rival — is the effect on the clubhouse.
“Players like it when their peers are rewarded for their good performance,” said Brodie Van Wagenen, the Mets’ first-year general manager — and, it’s worth noting, deGrom’s agent when he worked at CAA Sports. “And I think that was important for them to see in this situation. When you have the best pitcher in baseball do what he did last season, and then to be recognized for it, it gives everyone more confidence in the organization they’re working for.”
Nats fans might argue the best pitcher in baseball wore the home whites Thursday. Their lines were differently dominant: six innings of five-hit, shutout ball with 10 strikeouts for deGrom, a 7-2/3-inning, two-hit, two-run, 12-strikeout effort from Scherzer. Each is equally fun to watch, but they took opposite paths to find their own sense of security. DeGrom now says he wants to be a Met for life. Scherzer, once a Diamondback and a Tiger, bet on himself in free agency, and locked in a seven-year, $210 million deal with Washington. The result, though, was the same.
“When you know you’re going to be somewhere for seven years, you know that’s going to be the bulk of your career,” Scherzer said. “For me, signing here, this is where I wanted to be.”
Which is what Rendon must decide: Do I want to be in Washington? Because if that’s what he really wants, it can happen. Listen to deGrom, speaking at a news conference Wednesday, when the deal was announced.
“We were sitting there with a common goal in mind,” deGrom said, “and trying to figure out a way that worked.”
It’s up to Rendon and the Nats to find that common ground. Should they do it, it would be a message that resonates both inside the clubhouse and beyond. But it would also help them shake the unsettling situation they dealt with for years. Last season — and even before — the Nationals clubhouse was almost held hostage by the impending free agency of Bryce Harper. It wasn’t that it dominated conversation so much as it just hung there, a question everyone wondered about but no one could answer.
Rendon doesn’t carry with him Harper’s persona nor his Q-rating. But at this point for the Nationals, with Harper in Philadelphia, Rendon carries far more importance. The Nationals intend to try to work with Rendon and his agent, Scott Boras (who also represented Harper) on a possible extension even as the season is underway. It is, however, a two-way street.
Forget the negotiations for a minute, and imagine if it happened: Rendon, a Nat, for nearly the rest of his career. To find out what the impact might be not on Rendon himself, but on his teammates, consider the pins and needles the Mets were on as they worked out in Syracuse, and deGrom remained out of sight.
“The longer and longer that went on, the more hopeful we were that something was getting done,” Mets Manager Mickey Callaway said. “And when we got word, everybody was elated. These guys pull for each other, and they’re excited for their teammates. When you have that, you can have something special.”
The Nationals have had something special, in the form of a team that expects to contend, for eight consecutive seasons. Rendon is now the most important everyday player on that team — not because he’s obviously better over the long-term than Juan Soto or Victor Robles, but because he has the option to go somewhere else soon, and they don’t.
This discussion, too, doesn’t come in a D.C. vacuum. Pre-free agency extensions are raining down from the baseball sky. Just in the last week: Five years and $155 million for Chris Sale in Boston, four years and $55 million for Kyle Hendricks with the Chicago Cubs, five years and $130 million for Paul Goldschmidt in St. Louis, and two years and $66 million for Justin Verlander in Houston.
All of those players were taken care of. But so were all of those clubhouses. When news of deGrom’s extension dropped, Noah Syndergaard — his fellow laser-throwing right-hander — tweeted his buddy’s name, the emoji for a bag of money, and a GIF of Will Ferrell yelling, “Awesome.” Sign on to play with the Mets, and you know deGrom will front that rotation through 2023. That’s reassuring.
“There’s a lot of players in that clubhouse that have many years with us going forward,” Van Wagenen said. “ … We have this combination of youth and veterans that now feel comfortable about what team they’re going to be a part of. I think for the veterans that signed with us as free agents, many of them signed because of the strength of our rotation. They’re now able to see that this rotation is going together for years to come is exciting.”
Extensions, of course, carry risk on both sides. In 2015, most of the Washington fan base badly wanted the Nats to lock up Ian Desmond and Jordan Zimmermann, stalwarts in their transformation from 100-game losers to division champs. In the three full seasons since, Zimmermann has the fourth-worst ERA of any starter in the game, and Desmond has been moved from shortstop to the outfield with Texas and now to first base in Colorado, positions where his offense isn’t as impactful. The point: Be careful what you wish for.
But the glut of extensions agreed to this spring bring continuity for clubhouses and fan bases. Buy that deGrom jersey, Mets fans, because it’ll wear out before his tenure does.
The Nats have successfully extended two homegrown products: Ryan Zimmerman twice and Stephen Strasburg, who is, importantly, represented by Boras. Anything’s possible. Opening Day is meant for hope. Thursday afternoon, as those last “Lock him up!” chants faded, Rendon flied out softly to center, the end of an 0-for-4 day. His seventh season with the Nats is underway. And in the spring of extensions, no one — in the clubhouse or beyond — can say whether it will be his last.