With Nationals co-ace and World Series MVP Stephen Strasburg opting out of his contract and preparing to hit free agency, the Padres are gearing up to make a push for the right-hander’s services. According to Kevin Acee of the San Diego Union-Tribune, “multiple people in the [Padres] organization indicated over the past few days that the team will be in position to make a run at Stephen Strasburg.”
The connection is clear: Strasburg, 31, was born and raised in and around San Diego, attending college at San Diego State University, where he was coached by Padres legend Tony Gwynn. That alone has instantly forced the Padres into the conversation as a suitor for the former first overall draft choice. Everybody loves a good homecoming story, but one not need look further than Strasburg’s own teammate, Patrick Corbin, as an example of a free agent who was widely regarded as a near-lock to join his hometown Yankees, only to sign on with the Nats. That’s not to say the Strasburg-Padres link doesn’t hold any salt, but there will certainly be more variables that factor into Strasburg’s final decision, and it would behoove the Padres to refrain from relying too much on the hometown trope in recruiting Strasburg.
As Acee notes, the prevailing view around the industry is that the Nationals, who according to MLB Network’s Jon Heyman are poised to immediately enter talks with Strasburg, remain the favorites to retain their franchise icon. After opting out of the remaining four years and $100MM on his current deal, the Scott Boras client will be seeking a nice raise on the heels of arguably his best season. He struck out a career-high 251 batters while pitching his most innings since 2014—not including the stellar 36 1/3 innings he logged during the Nats’ title run. Regardless, the Friars’ interest is notable in that it represents a logical progression of the franchise rebuild, which looks to be entering its final stages.
To be sure, location isn’t the only thing that makes Strasburg and the Padres compatible—there’s a fit on paper, as well. Still without a top-flight starter, Strasburg would greatly bolster the Padres’ chances in the coming season. Rookie Chris Paddack and Dinelson Lamet were the most impressive cogs in the starting rotation, but the depth beyond that pair is troubling. Garrett Richards is healthy and will be back in 2020, and top prospects like Adrian Morejon, Michel Baez, and Cal Quantrill have graduated to the big leagues. Each of those youngsters could take a second-year leap and contribute to the 2020 rotation, but banking on that would put a lot on the shoulders of an inexperienced group that hasn’t yet shown that they can stick on a Major League staff.
The Padres have long been regarded as a team on the rise, with a healthy stable of prospects that has led many to pronounce the Friars as the next coming of the Cubs or Astros. But potential can only get you so far, and many are itching for the front office to show a sense of urgency and capitalize on the depth of young talent in the organization. Indeed, the front office’s recent actions indicate that the organization feels its window for contention is opening: signing Manny Machado and Eric Hosmer firmly declared the team’s desire to transition into a win-now mode. They were rumored to be in talks for top-flight trade targets like Noah Syndergaard, Corey Kluber, and Marcus Stroman, ultimately coming up empty-handed.
Of course, adding a pitcher of Strasburg’s caliber would require the Padres to ratchet up the 2020 payroll. Roster Resource pegs San Diego’s current obligations at roughly $120MM, a number that includes projected salaries for arbitration-eligible players. Of course, some of those players may be non-tendered, and Wil Myers, owner of a hefty $22.5MM salary, is a candidate to be traded. Such moves could partially offset the cost of adding Strasburg, which could come in at a bill exceeding $30MM annually. While San Diego’s deep farm system has made the trade market its primary recourse for acquiring Major League talent, it’s not every day that a pitcher like Strasburg could be had where money is the only cost.