Hindsight is $175 Million


In 2030, Stephen Strasburg will be receiving his last check from the Washington Nationals.  He will be 42 years old, and will likely be enjoying retirement-life by then.

How far into that retirement he will be, by that point, remains to be seen.

A quarter of the way into September, it appeared to be sunshine and rainbows for the Nationals, who remain comfortably atop their division. The offense was finally starting to show some consistency and they were getting their ace back from a brief stint on the DL.

Today, the skies over Anacostia are considerably-cloudier, as Nats fans grimly await the results of Strasburg’s MRI. Indeed, with his track record of injuries, even the staunchest-optimist would be hard-pressed not to assume the worst.

Even if the results are negative, it’s certainly not good, highlighting the risk associated with high-octane pitching arms.

A second Tommy John surgery would certainly not be unprecedented; it’s the modern reality. Compounding matters, however: the ink hasn’t dried on the $175 million dollar contract extension Strasburg signed, back in May. Starting in 2017, his annual price tag rises to a cool $25 million.

To put it in historical context, it is the sixth-highest contract ever doled out for a pitcher. You might have heard of the guys ahead of him:

Clayton Kershaw ($215 million)
David Price ($217)
Max Scherzer ($210)
Zack Greinke ($206.5)
Justin Verlander ($180)

Though Kershaw has battled injuries, this season, this group has enjoyed relative health, throughout their respective careers. Strasburg’s health woes, on the other hand, have been well-documented.

At the time, Nats General Manager Mike Rizzo was lauded for inking Strasburg to a “below market-value” deal. It’s not entirely-fair to poke post-mortem holes in this decision (Strasburg was lighting it up at the time).

Simultaneously, you could say that he doubled-down too soon. If you include the end of the 2015 season, Strasburg had put together about two, consecutive months of stellar baseball. It was a tantalizing glimpse into his ceiling, but constitutes less than a third of a full season’s worth.

Nobody forced their hand; at that point, the Nationals were bidding only against themselves. Super-agent Scott Boras, Strasburg’s representation, played his cards perfectly – capitalizing on the Lerner’s cheapness.

Assuming good health, Strasburg would have entered the market as the number one pitching free agent. In that scenario, one must assume he would have received contract offers in the ballpark of the five previously-listed figures.

All this, of course, for a pitcher who has never won more than 15 games in a season.  Advanced analytics have taught us to look past win/loss totals but, in this case, they tell a story of inconsistency.

Strasburg has been occasionally-transcendent, yes.  He has also shown tendencies to get rattled or lose focus.  Of course, there are also the injuries, ranging from Tommy John to back problems

Was the risk of coughing up an extra $30-some million dollars worth selling the farm early? Or, would it have been better to wait and see if he could have put up a full-season of strong baseball, for the first time in his career?

It’s not like they had no other internal options. Even after letting Jordan Zimmerman walk, they had the much ballyhooed tandem of Lucas Giolito and Reynaldo Lopez nipping at the heels of the 25-man roster.

One can never have enough pitching (just ask the Orioles). Still, it just seemed like a lot too soon, for a pitcher with a reputation as a head-case and a litany of injuries.

The contract, as currently structured, grants Strasburg an opt-out clause after the 2019 and 2020 seasons. Heaven forbid, but in the event of a serious injury, the odds of him excercising those clauses are slim to none.

Like it or not, the Nationals and Strasburg will be joined at the hip for a long time. Hopefully he will be spending that time on the mound, not sipping cocktails on some exotic beach.

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