Four years ago today, the Nationals made a franchise-altering decision. The club and Stephen Strasburg agreed on a seven-year, $175MM extension (with deferrals that lowered its present value) on May 10, 2016. The deal kept the then-27-year-old from hitting free agency that winter, where he’d have profiled as the top player on the market in the eyes of MLBTR’s Tim Dierkes. It registered as a surprise given how close the former #1 overall pick was to the open market, made a bit more eye-opening by his status as a Scott Boras client.
Clearly, though, Strasburg was comfortable with the only organization he’d ever known. And the deal didn’t commit him to Washington for the full seven years; it came with opt-out clauses after 2019 and 2020. He’d have a chance to (and ultimately did) pitch his way to greater earnings in the future.
For the Nationals, the risk-reward calculus was apparent. The extension looked to be a discount relative to Strasburg’s overall earning potential, considering the $200MM+ guarantees secured by Max Scherzer and David Price the two prior offseasons. Still, committing well over nine figures to any pitcher, particularly one with a Tommy John Surgery under his belt, comes with potential pitfalls.
Over the first few seasons, the deal played as a fine one for the club, but it wasn’t any sort of massive bargain. Strasburg was very productive when healthy, combining for a 3.27 ERA/3.13 FIP in 404 innings from the time of signing through the end of 2018. Various injuries kept him just outside the game’s top tier of pitchers, though. In that two and a half year stretch, the right-hander hit the injured list five separate times with back, shoulder, elbow and neck maladies. None had ultimately proven serious, but he had assembled a somewhat ominous laundry list of health problems.
Entering 2019, it didn’t look as if Strasburg was on track to exercise the first of those opt-outs. Then, at age 30, he ripped off a career year. In the regular season, he tossed 209 innings (his first 200-inning season since 2014) of 3.32 ERA ball with stellar strikeout (29.8%), walk (6.7%) and ground-ball (51.1%) rates. That alone would’ve made his season a resounding success, but it was Strasburg’s October work that cemented his place in Nationals’ lore.
He kicked off the 2019 postseason with three scoreless relief innings behind Scherzer in the NL Wild Card game, allowing the Nats to rally late and knock off the Brewers. That was only the beginning. Strasburg would go on to start five playoff games thereafter. He tossed quality starts in all of them, and Washington would go on to win each one. He played a key role in three elimination game victories, including an 8.1 inning gem in Game 6 of the World Series in Houston. All told, he finished the postseason with a 1.98 ERA and an absurd 47:4 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 36.1 innings. He picked up a deserved World Series MVP award for his efforts in bringing the franchise’s first title to D.C.
Strasburg’s again back in the fold long-term. After opting out, he re-signed last winter on another seven-year deal for a $245MM guarantee. Regardless of how his next deal plays out, Strasburg will always have a spot in the heart of the Nationals’ faithful. That’s in large part thanks to the agreement the sides were able to put together four years ago.