If Stephen Strasburg were Harvey Trandleben, a 17th-rounder out of Texas Tech State who slowly rose to prominence and became a perennial All-Star candidate and injury risk, a seven-year, $175 million contract wouldn't seem that different from any other obscene pitching contract. There would be a ton of risk wrapped in a crispy shell of supply and demand. That's how all big contracts are for pitchers. If you want a pitcher with a chance at Cy Young votes, you either develop one, get lucky, or pay scores and scores of millions.
But because it's Strasburg, who arrived as the Next Great Pitcher and made the world wait around while he was just a Really Good Pitcher, this contract has to mean something more. It has to be a referendum on something. Is it Scott Boras selling high, moving his shares when Strasburg is rolling? Is it Strasburg giving himself a vote of no-confidence, taking the money while it's on the table, knowing that his arm isn't going to last three years, much less seven? Or is Strasburg comfortable with the only organization he's ever known, enough so to take a deal with compromises on both sides?
Is Stephen Strasburg elite, he asked, slowly backing out of the room?
The trick is to not think of Strasburg as the pitching prospect who arrived on a clam shell, flanked by angels. Think of him as a quite excellent, surprisingly consistent pitcher. He's 27, with a 3.06 career ERA and 127 ERA+, and he's been worth about three wins above replacement every single year, so long as his ligaments are intact. If FIP is your thing, note that he's been a touch unlucky over his career, but the particulars don't matter. Strasburg could strike out 200 batters with an ERA below 3.00 in any given season, and you wouldn't think much of it.
Those kinds of pitchers are rare. You might even say that they're $175 million worth of rare.
Here's the Stephen Strasburg extension, Rashomon-style, from various perspectives.
The extension from the Nationals' perspective
Don't think of the Nationals as a team willing to pay $50 million for the top two pitchers in their rotation. Think of them as a team willing to pay a cool $75 million or so for their entire rotation, from Strasburg to Max Scherzer to Joe Ross to Tanner Roark to Gio Gonzalez to (eventually) Lucas Giolito. Spread the money around evenly, and it looks like a reasonably priced rotation.
And if Roark or Ross or Giolito disappoint, think of the Nationals as a team that's confident in its ability to find the next wave of pitching talent. This is a team with an eye for pitching, which is how all of these pitchers showed up at the same time in the first place. Their rotation is 60 percent deft trades. This sets up a bizarre, almost paradoxical truth: The Nationals can buy some of their pitching because they know they won't have to buy all of their pitching.
So they can spend to attract/keep their best pitchers. And one thing the Nationals probably noticed is that Strasburg is 27 and excellent at pitching. Cy Young excellent? No, not yet. Maybe not ever. Since he came into the league in 2010, 26 pitchers have accumulated more WAR. Four of them were in the Nationals' rotation last year, which gives you an idea of why the 2015 Nationals were so disappointing.
If we're talking about tiers, Strasburg isn't with Clayton Kershaw or Jake Arrieta, and he isn't with Chris Sale or Felix Hernandez. He wasn't even with Jordan Zimmermann over the last few years, which makes the extra two years and $65 million seem a little curious. But Strasburg is still one of the best pitchers in baseball, a mix of command and stuff that's nearly impossible to find in the wild. The Nationals lost 102 games to get him. With interest, those losses works out to $175 million exactly.
[looks up how interest and basic economics work]
Regardless, Strasburg is outstanding, and someone was going to make him that rich if he made it through the season with his health. It's a risk for the Nationals, perhaps a substantial one. But they weren't going to get an ace-caliber pitcher with money alone any time soon. The open markets are more Mike Leake than Max Scherzer, and Strasburg's contract is snugly in the middle of those two.
The Stephen Strasburg perspective
Did you notice that last disclaimer up there? "Made it through the season with his health." Strasburg is four-plus years and over 700 innings in on his new elbow ligament. The Nationals quietly limited his workload in a way that no one would possibly notice, so that helps. Still, we're talking about a pitcher who's thrown more than 200 innings once in his career.
Another wrinkle is the specter of Scott Boras, twisting his mustache of palladium and daring to give his clients the best possible advice. This must mean that something's wrong, either with Strasburg's arm, confidence or motivation. This almost makes sense, until you realize that Boras is an agent, not a cartoon supervillain. Don't forget that Jered Weaver told him that he wanted to sign a team-friendly extension, leaving tens of millions, if not much more, behind. Boras probably had words and thoughts for Weaver, but he also did his job.
If you're using Occam's Razor to find the least amount of noise, it might be that Strasburg is comfortable in Washington. Likes his coaches, his fans, the situation ... why would he leave? There's risk and reward with him taking an extension before he got to the open market, but the risk sure is limited. There aren't a lot of people in history who thought, "Ugh, here I am with my $175 million, like a chump, a real Jack with his magic beans, here."
His hot start wrangled some extra millions from the Nationals, and now everyone's satisfied. The bulk of the risk is on the Nationals' side, which is how it should be with player contracts.
The perspective of everyone else around the league
Not just dammit because pitchers keep getting nine-figure deals, bigger and bigger. But dammit because there was a chance the Nationals would take a body blow as soon as this offseason. Dammit because maybe they secretly coveted Strasburg.
And, biggest of all, dammit, this offseason is going to be a pitching train wreck.
If you're the Braves, do you trade Julio Teheran in July? Before you answer that, let's check in with the power ranking of available starting pitcher free agents next year!
- Scott Kazmir
- R.A. Dickey
- Bartolo Colon
- Mat Latos
- Andrew Cashner
- James Shields
- C.J. Wilson?
- Jorge De La Rosa
- Rich Hill?
- Jhoulys Chacin
Dunno, maybe Rich Hill should be higher on this ranking of future free agent pitchers. That's a real sentence in the year 2016. I made that list in about 10 seconds, so feel free to move pitchers up and down. But it's breathtaking. We've noticed this before, and now the only clear ace is off the market, which is why Shields will likely make himself available with his opt-out in the first place.
So if you're the Braves, you hang on to Teheran until you're bowled over. Call it the Shelby Miller plan, where you act patiently and wait for someone to overpay. That goes with every other team peddling pitching at the deadline.
Strasburg might have jimmied up the trade deadline, one of the purest, dumbest rites we get to enjoy as baseball fans. The monster.
But this all ties back to what the Nationals were thinking. There ain't no pitching out there. If you want it, it'll take a prospect haul that would make your head spin. Otherwise, it's innings-eaters and old-timers. If the Nationals had let Strasburg go, there was almost no way for them to get better on paper.
So it's a marriage of convenience. It's a marriage of talent and capabilities, and it's a marriage of comfort. Everyone seems happy about the Strasburg extension, except for the other teams. That's a pretty good indication that it makes a lot of sense.