One year ago, the Washington Nationals watched their former No. 1 overall pick, a generational talent, leave in free agency. This time, they didn’t let another generational talent, No. 1 overall star getaway.
The Nationals signed Stephen Strasburg to a stunning seven-year, $245 million contract on Monday because they couldn’t afford not to.
When Bryce Harper left to join Philadelphia, the Nationals were better equipped to absorb his loss. They already had an outfield with splendid rookie Juan Soto and veteran Adam Eaton, plus Victor Robles was ready and waiting in the wings to take over in center field.
Washington’s starting rotation is its greatest strength, and a Strasburg-sized hole would have been difficult to fill. Sure, that $35 million per year could have been allocated to a different starting pitcher and perhaps an addition on offense, but it’s hard to fault the Nationals for wanting to keep their homegrown superstar immediately after he delivered the franchise’s first championship.
“I’ve said this for years, that when he’s on the mound he’s one of the top three or four pitchers in all of baseball. He always has been,” Nationals general manager Mike Rizzo said Monday. “The secret was to keep him on the mound as often as possible. I think he’s done a great job of that.”
It wasn’t always easy. Faced with the most-hyped pitching prospect of the last three decades, the Nationals were overly protective of Strasburg in the early going. After returning from Tommy John surgery to post a strong 2012, in his first full major league season, Strasburg was shut down by Washington in September, which took who would have been a playoff starter out of the Nationals rotation. They lost in the NLDS, the first of four Division Series eliminations in six years.
Strasburg succumbed to various injuries over the years but still averaged 28 starts over the last eight seasons, and he was while on the mound one of the very best pitchers in the game. He had a 129 ERA+ from 2012-19, and ranked seventh in pitching fWAR (33.3), sixth in FIP (3.04), and fourth in strikeout rate (28.9 percent) during that time.
He was even better in 2019, with a 138 ERA+ while leading the National League in wins (18) and innings (209). Strasburg proved even more durable during the postseason, starting five times and reliving once, his 36⅓ innings just an out shy of Gerrit Cole for the most in baseball this October. Strasburg had a 1.98 ERA in those innings, winning World Series MVP in the process. The Nationals won all of his starts so it’s no surprise they wanted him back.
It was the perfect storm for Strasburg to capitalize on his postseason success, as the history of record pitching contracts showed. It was convenient timing for him to have an opt-out clause in his previous long-term deal with Washington. He left four years and $100 million on the table to test the market, and came back with the richest pitching contract in history (at least until Cole signs his expected record deal). Strasburg cashing in was as fitting a tribute to Marvin Miller — the longtime head of the players union who ushered in free agency and laid the groundwork for players to exercise their labor rights — as the Hall of Fame itself, to which Miller was elected one day earlier. The timing was perfect.
What’s next for the Nationals
What Strasburg comes back to is just what he left. One of the very best starting rotations in baseball, and certainly the most expensive. On a nominal average annual value, Strasburg ($35 million), Max Scherzer ($30 million), and Patrick Corbin ($23.3 million) are making over $88 million. That trio combined for a 3.18 ERA in 93 starts last year, and a staggering 732 strikeouts. Scherzer has two more years left on his contract, which defines Washington’s immediate window. Add in that Anibal Sanchez — 119 ERA+ in 30 starts, plus 2.50 ERA in his three October starts — is under contract for $9 million in 2020 plus an option for 2021, and the Nationals are poised to contend no matter what with that rotation.
Nationals 2019 rotation
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That quartet combined for a 2.99 ERA during the Nationals’ postseason run, and lasted at least five innings in all 17 October starts. That allowed Washington to condense its pitching staff and not overuse a relatively shaky bullpen. Getting Strasburg back makes the Nationals rotation as deep and as strong of a rotation as there is in the game.
There is still the matter of the Nationals’ other elite free agent, with third baseman Anthony Rendon still unsigned. Rendon was the Nationals’ first-round pick in 2011, following Harper in 2009 and Strasburg in 2010. Rendon was picked sixth overall but was just as important to Washington’s ascension as the other two first-round picks. He’s been one of the best players in baseball for a few years running, and is poised to cash in on what figures to be perhaps another $200 million-plus contract this winter.
Nationals owner Mark Lerner didn’t sound optimistic the club could sign both Strasburg and Rendon, last week telling NBC Sports Washington, “We really can only afford to have one of those two guys.”
Rizzo walked those comments back a bit on Monday after Strasburg signed, noting that Max Scherzer deferred half of his $210 million contract and that Strasburg’s contract defers $80 million. “When you look at those comments, and then you look at the structure of this particular deal and the structure of deals we’ve had getting up to where we are right now, I think that Mark realizes that there’s ways to fit players in,” Rizzo told reporters Monday.
Even with Strasburg’s new massive contract, Cot’s contracts estimates the Nationals’ competitive balance tax payroll — counting projections for salary arbitration-eligible players plus the rest of the roster — at just over $169 million. The threshold — used as a de facto salary cap by nearly every team the last few season — in 2020 is $208 million, which would give the Nationals enough room to give Rendon a wallop of a contract, too.
Washington could also use that money to sign other players, perhaps add to a bullpen that basically included only two, maybe three pitchers manager Dave Martinez was willing to use in pressure spots in October. Much like Soto and Robles in the outfield before him, shortstop Carter Kieboom is a top-25 prospect who will help at some point, perhaps even be the type of player to help cushion the loss of an elite player like Rendon, if it comes to that.
Either way, with the strength of the rotation, and whomever the Nationals add the rest of this winter, the defending World Series champs are poised to contend again.
The Nationals had no such depth to step in for Strasburg. That’s why they couldn’t let him get away.