It's difficult, if not impossible, to quantify what Stephen Strasburg meant to the Nationals from a pure dollars-and-cents standpoint this year, but we can safely assume it was big.
We know this much: Strasburg's jersey was the top seller in baseball in June, and the Nationals have sold more Strasburg jerseys than any in their history. Their average attendance for Strasburg home games was 33,446, or almost 50 percent higher than the Nationals' average crowd without Strasburg. His June 8 debut more than tripled MASN's ratings record for a Nationals broadcast, and his starts throughout the summer consistently drew better TV audiences than when he didn't pitch.
There's no question Strasburg was good for business. In fact, he was so good that before his debut, agent Scott Boras guessed the four-year, $15.1 million contract the Nationals gave Strasburg might have underestimated his true value.
"Right now, we're seeing something in baseball that's finally coming to fruition," Boras said in June. "We've seen a player that, prior to reporting to the major league level -- and they're really not of value to you until they perform -- has changed the marquee of a franchise, changed the perception of the franchise, added TV ratings, that has added great value.'"
So what happens to the Nationals, financially, now that Strasburg is gone for a year?
Maury Brown, the president of the Business of Sports Network and bizofbaseball.com, isn't sure what the Nationals will do to make up for the loss of Strasburg buzz, but he thinks there's certain to be a financial hit.
"If there was a case to be made that the Nationals' fanbase was interested in something exciting, Strasburg surely pointed that out. Here it was, a great prospect and everybody was abuzz about it, and it's not just a local story, it's a national story," Brown said. "Fans will certainly go, 'Aha, look! This proves the point that if you give us something exciting, we'll come out.' It's going to be a case of saying whether the pieces are around the club are going to push them that far forward to spend."
With Strasburg gone, the Nationals have a fascinating decision to make: Do they try to add proven players and push through 2011, even if that means increasing payroll, or do they let players like Adam Dunn leave in free agency and circle back to a position of building for the future?
The Nationals are optimistic about their potential 2011 rotation even without Strasburg - they'll have Jordan Zimmermann, Yunesky Maya, John Lannan, Ross Detwiler, Jason Marquis and possibly Livan Hernandez and Chien-Ming Wang all in the mix for spots. But there's not an ace in that group, and Strasburg gave them that.
The Rangers' Cliff Lee is the top free agent on this year's market, and though sources close to the organization have said the Nationals would be interested in signing the left-hander, it's tough to imagine them competing with the Yankees, among Lee's other potential suitors, and handing a nine-figure contract to a 32-year-old pitcher.
But there could be several issues if the Nationals stand pat or retrench financially; they'd risk further frustrating a fanbase that has yet to see a winning team in six years in Washington. Strasburg is still also accruing service time next year, meaning he's a step closer to free agency. Even in the best-case scenario, he won't pitch 200 big-league innings for the first time until 2013, which is also the last year of third baseman Ryan Zimmerman's contract. The Nationals need to put a competitive team on the field in the near future, and they might not be able to wait until Strasburg is fully healthy to do that.
The Nationals, though, have been reluctant to dive into free agency unless there's a player that makes sense, and it's questionable whether they'll pursue a win-now approach for 2011.
"I don't see them going out and trying to find some front-line guy, some No. 1 free agent that lands out there. I don't see the Nationals competing for Cliff Lee this offseason. It doesn't strike me as beneficial at this point," Brown said. "I think they're in a precarious position to say, 'Let's go out and get a free agent for attendance.' Winning is the thing. That's what (team president) Stan (Kasten)'s always said. And I don't see them going out and adding a free agent for attendance. It just doesn't make sense with the model."