So much for quiet Winter Meetings this year. It didn’t take long for the news to drop that the Washington Nationals re-signed Stephen Strasburg to a seven-year, $245 million deal. That means Strasburg is now in possession of (a) the biggest total deal given to a pitcher in MLB history, cleanly pushing David Price’s $217 million deal aside, and (b) the highest average annual value at $35 million per year, edging out Zach Greinke.
It’s far from shocking that Strasburg ended up back with the team with which he’s spent his whole career. He was the most highly touted draft prospect in MLB history when the Nats drafted him and, now, he’s gone from the hope of the future to a franchise cornerstone, winning the World Series MVP and playing an extremely important role in bringing home Washington’s first title. So, yes, it should come as no surprise that he’ll be back with the Nationals in 2020. The only surprise here is the magnitude of the contract.
There’s the money issue, and, also the fact that Strasburg is 31 years old and will be 38 when this deal is over, and the nagging issue that he’s already had Tommy John surgery. But it’s not that simple. The gentle handling of Strasburg by Washington, including shutting him down in a year in which they made the postseason, means that he has less mileage on his arm than other pitchers in his age group. The Nationals have way more information on Strasburg than any other team, and the fact that they’re willing to take this sort of risk on him means that their medical staff is fully on board and thinks Strasburg is likely to be able to pitch until he’s 38. (Aside: I am 38 years old and my elbow was acting up while I was taking out the trash today, so I can absolutely anecdotally confirm that this deal is not without risk.)
While there are pitchers who pull off this sort of feat, they are few and far between. There’s a reason that the 39-year old CC Sabbathia is such an anomaly in this day and age. Strasburg’s “similar pitchers” comparisons over at Baseball-Reference kind of say it all. One of the guys on there is another reason the Nationals won it all this year in 35-year-old Max Scherzer, and Roy Halladay was excellent in his mid-30s. Jered Weaver and Tim Lincecum represent the flip side of the coin, however, and you can’t ignore the fact that this is a potentially crippling contract for a club, especially when you consider that Strasburg already had his first Tommy John surgery.
The successful return rate after a second TJ surgery is much, much lower than after a first, and that has to factor into the contract that a team is doling out. I’m frankly more than a little shocked that Strasburg and his agent Scott Boras did as well as they did on this with the length of the deal, and it largely seems like an effort by Washington to outbid the competition early on so that they could have the Strasbird in the hand rather than wait around on the Cole in the bush. The deal might be an overpay, but it’s also not totally unreasonable. Washington just drank from the championship fountain and now they’ve got to do the unthinkable in today’s MLB and figure out how to go back to the well for another taste. Strasburg unquestionably fills a much needed hole in making that happen over the next few years, at least.
Things get interesting when you parse Nationals owner Mark Lerner’s comments that Washington’s signing of Strasburg means they’re out on Anthony Rendon. Rendon is the best position player available, and a slightly more unsung hero of the Nationals’ recent success, but he also won’t come cheap. The thing is, Washington has the money to pay the man and they’ll need somebody to fill in for him if they do, in fact, let him go. Josh Donaldson is certainly available, but Rendon is certainly the player with the greater chance to succeed thanks to his health record and age. If the Nats do manage to sign Rendon, they’re certainly favorites to win their division yet again, even if things don’t always work out the way we imagine them over the winter.
Zooming out for a minute to the general health of free agency, it does seem to appear that there might be one last gasp for the old system if baseball teams keep this sort of activity up all offseason. While it won’t come close to solving the underlying issues that need addressing, it’s at least a return to the old status quo where the top veterans get their payday, even if it comes at the expense of the young’ns. But it’s still far too early to draw any conclusions on how the rest of the market will play out. One thing’s for sure, though. Gerrit Cole and his agent are probably pretty happy right about now, and Cole is about to be even wealthier than we could’ve imagined heading into this offseason, thanks to the Nationals’ opening their checkbook for Strasburg.
Grade for Strasburg, Cole and Boras: A+++
Grade for Washington: B / Incomplete