Nationals right-hander Stephen Strasburg is one of a few major leaguers who will have an interesting opt-out decision to make once the offseason arrives. Strasburg will still have four years and $100MM left on the extension he signed with the Nationals in 2016 then, but he has done well in 2019 to make a case for a raise. However, there are extenuating circumstances that could prevent Strasburg from taking the gamble on entering free agency over the winter.
By now, everyone who follows baseball closely knows Strasburg’s story. He’s a former No. 1 overall pick and uber-prospect who debuted with great fanfare in 2010, has dealt with myriad injuries since then, but has largely been outstanding when healthy enough to take the mound. Now, with a potential trip to the open market looming, the 31-year-old is arguably better than ever.
While Strasburg doesn’t throw as hard as he did in his younger days, it hasn’t served as a detriment to his results. He’s at full strength now, having made 30 starts and amassed 191 innings, and has logged a 3.49 ERA/3.22 FIP with 10.79 K/9 against 2.31 BB/9. Strasburg ranks fourth among qualified starters in innings, seventh in fWAR (5.4), 16th in K/BB ratio (4.67) and 31st among all pitchers in expected weighted on-base average against (.261, which isn’t far from the .270 real wOBA hitters have registered off him). Teammate Max Scherzer rightly gets the lion’s share of attention when it comes to Nats starters, but this year’s version of Strasburg has been lights-out. Previous iterations haven’t been far off, injuries notwithstanding.
Besides Astros co-ace Gerrit Cole, it’s tough to find a better starter than Strasburg who could reach the open market in a couple months. Strasburg, if he opts out, wouldn’t approach the $200MM mark, as Cole could. But Strasburg might be able to outdo the $100MM he’d leave on the table by vacating his current deal. The Boras Corporation client would obviously be taking an enormous risk by heading to free agency, though, as the market hasn’t been enamored of 30-somethings who come with qualifying offers (as Strasburg undoubtedly would) in recent years. That said, there have been over-30 pitchers who have raked in nine figures in free agency in recent years. To name just a couple prominent examples, Zack Greinke got six years and $206.5MM from the Diamondbacks before 2016, when he was set to turn 32. The Cubs gave Yu Darvish $126MM over six years going into 2018, in which he also turned 32.
The Greinke and Darvish deals haven’t worked out swimmingly for the clubs that distributed them, as the D-backs traded a still-highly effective Greinke to the Astros a month and a half ago because they wanted his money off the books. Darvish, meanwhile, has done solid work this season (he struck out 14 in his most recent start Thursday), but 2018 wasn’t a banner year. Overall, he probably hasn’t given the Cubs the type of production they envisioned upon signing him. Those are just a couple cautionary tales that could scare teams away from giving a massive amount of money to an aging Strasburg.
For Strasburg, the recent difficulties accomplished 30-plus starters Jake Arrieta and Dallas Keuchel – both with Cy Youngs on their mantles – have encountered in free agency could scare him away from opting out. Arrieta did land a three-year, $75MM guarantee from the Phillies entering 2018, but that was far less than he sought when he hit the market. Keuchel made out way worse last offseason, sitting without a job until he accepted a one-year, $13MM offer from the Braves this past June.
Of course, it’s quite possible Strasburg could exit his contract and stay with the Nationals. Longtime Dodgers ace Clayton Kershaw ended last offseason with an opt-out on the two years and $65MM remaining on his pact, but the two sides quickly struck a new agreement for three years and $93MM. Perhaps the Nationals and Strasburg will come together on a similar arrangement that tacks on another year(s) and more money. In the meantime, they and Strasburg will try to win their first World Series (or at least their first playoff series) in the next couple months. After that, his opt-out choice will be a fascinating story to follow. As of now, how do you expect things to play out?
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