Three games into the Washington Nationals 2019 postseason and Stephen Strasburg has already played the part of hero twice. In the other game, the Nats lost. Last night’s mastery spun 6 innings of 3-hit ball with 10 strikeouts to zero walks as he took the win at Dodger Stadium. His brilliance in the 2017 NLDS against the Cubs is largely forgotten since they didn’t advance, but it does add to the mounting pile of evidence suggesting Strasburg is indeed one of the game’s best big game pitchers.
Strasburg has a decision looming whenever the magic of the Nationals 2019 postseason runs dry. He has an opt-out clause in his contract that he could exercise to become a free agent this winter. Given the depressed market of recent offseasons, the possibility that Stras would opt-out seemed far-fetched not too long ago. That’s no longer the case. After completing perhaps the healthiest season of his career, one in which he could finish as high as second in Cy Young voting, one in which he registered league-leading marks in wins (18) and innings (209), as well as notching a career-high 251 strikeouts, Strasburg’s opt-out is more certain now than ever.
His agent, Scott Boras, is sure to make that pitch, though he has thus far refrained from speaking specifically about Strasburg’s intentions. He is, however, laying the groundwork for potential free agency by declaring stud starters such as Strasburg immune to any downturns in the market, per Bill Shaikin of the LA Times. With four-years and $100MM remaining on his contract already, he won’t exactly be hard-up for cash either way. Strasburg, 31, is also the rarest of Boras client – one who signed before reaching the open market.
If he doesn’t opt-out, his deal would expire after his 35th birthday. Strasburg could view this winter as his last opportunity to lock-in a major payday for his elder years. Zack Greinke signed his six-year, $206.5MM deal at a similar point in his career – after a career season in which he turned 31-years-old and finished second in Cy Young voting. In raw totals, Greinke’s 9.1 bWAR 2015 with the Dodgers eclipses Strasburg’s 6.3 bWAR 2019 by a decent margin, and Greinke’s overall track record was a tad more impressive at the time. He had been worth 48.9 bWAR to that point in his career versus 32.6 bWAR for Strasburg now. Even if you attribute the difference largely to durability (323 GS, 2094 2/3 innings for Greinke post-2015, 239 GS, 1438 2/3 innings for Strasburg post-2019), that’s hardly an insignificant attribution in contract negotiation.
A similar contract would more than double Strasburg’s guaranteed money while only tacking on two additional years. From the team perspective, it’s hard to fault the Diamondbacks for the deal now, as despite the whopping gross total, Greinke did deliver 16.4 bWAR across 3+ seasons, a playoff appearance, utility player Josh Rojas and their #4, #11 and #12 prospects as ranked by MLB.com.
Jake Arrieta signed a free agent contract when the Phillies inked him to a 3-year, $75MM deal the same week he turned 32. Arrieta had an even more uneven history than Strasburg, with 20.2 bWAR earned at the point of his free agency and a chasm of difference between the glory years in Chicago and his humble beginnings in Baltimore. This also feels less comparable to Strasburg as – despite being close to the same age at the time of free agency – Arrieta appeared headed for the downswing of his career. Strasburg is just now coming into his own, as written about here by Barry Svrluga of the Washington Post.
That same offseason, Yu Darvish signed his 6-year, $126MM deal with the Cubs in the winter of his 31st year. Darvish was coming off a 4.0 bWAR season split between Texas and Los Angeles, though a pair of disastrous World Series outings certainly colored the narrative of his free agency.
Regardless, Strasburg, Scott Boras, and the Nationals will have a lot to talk about this winter. If Strasburg can further grow his October legend, Boras may be right about his value transcending that of the market. Not to mention, Strasburg’s hometown of San Diego has a team on the rise, money to spend, and a gigantic ballpark with which to lure Strasburg home. In terms of competition, he’d be the clear-cut second-best starting pitching option on the free agent market after Gerrit Cole. You tell me: what comes next in the Strasburg saga?
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