With Strasburg deal, Nats finally show they can re-sign best players

The question would come up every now and again over the years, becoming more frequent the last few months as the potential finish line drew closer: Is there any chance the Nationals will re-sign Stephen Strasburg?

And the answer, always, was a simple: Not likely.

There were plenty of legitimate reasons to draw that conclusion. Strasburg seemed like a guy who wanted to return to the West Coast. The Nationals were reluctant to hand out nine-figure contracts to any pitcher, but particularly those who had already been through Tommy John surgery. Scott Boras clients rarely re-signed with their original clubs, certainly not before having a chance to hit the open market.

Then there was last year’s acquisition of Max Scherzer to a seven-year, $210 million contract, a shocking development in its own right that also seemed to suggest the Nationals had either given up on or weren’t interested in retaining their two home-grown aces: Strasburg and Jordan Zimmermann.

And when the Nats let Zimmermann walk this winter without having had any serious negotiations in about a year, it was logical to conclude they would probably follow the same path with Strasburg.

Put that all together, and last night’s revelation that Strasburg and the Nationals had agreed to a seven-year, $175 million extension had to qualify as one of the most unexpected moments in club history.

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The contract, which a source familiar with the details confirmed, is expected to be announced today, perhaps with a mid-afternoon news conference at Nationals Park. It includes an opt-out clause that Strasburg can enact after the third or fourth year. The Washington Post first reported the agreement, while MLB Network first reported terms of the deal.

Nobody saw this coming, certainly not on a Monday night in early May, while Strasburg was on the mound facing the Tigers. There was no inkling of talks taking place, no reports of the two sides being “close to a deal,” no suggestion anything of consequence had taken place until it was already wrapped up.

That speaks to the stealth manner in which Mike Rizzo and the Lerner family often pull off these transactions of significance. But it also speaks to perhaps the real reason this thing got done at all: Stephen Strasburg isn’t like most big-name ballplayers.

The 27-year-old never has been comfortable under the spotlight. That’s how he was the day he was drafted No. 1 in the country, and that’s how he remains today six years into his major league career.

The notion of free agency, with no other prominent starting pitcher set to be available this winter, and with the entire Hot Stove League focused on where he’d sign, could not have been appealing to Strasburg.

This is a guy you never envisioned going to New York or Boston or Chicago, or even Los Angeles, given the excess attention he would have received in baseball’s biggest markets. Maybe the West Coast was appealing, but how many teams out there had the resources to sign a pitcher to a nine-figure deal? His hometown Padres simply weren’t in a position to do that.

Now, Washington is no small market, and Strasburg has received and will continue to receive plenty of attention here. But it’s not the same as other traditional baseball towns. And, if nothing else, D.C. has become a familiar place for Strasburg and his family. He knows what to expect here. He wouldn’t necessarily know it someplace else.

This also speaks to Strasburg’s comfort level with the Nationals as an organization, new manager Dusty Baker and new pitching coach Mike Maddux, and certainly longtime general manager Mike Rizzo. Remember when some suggested back in September 2012 that Rizzo’s decision to shut down Strasburg before the playoffs would discourage him or other big-name players from wanting to sign or re-sign with the Nats? Could that line of reasoning have been any further from reality?

If anything, the Nationals now have firmly established their reputation for taking care of pitchers, putting their long-term health (and, by extension, financial interests) ahead of potential short-term success. Five months ago, Zimmermann signed the largest contract ever given to a pitcher post-Tommy John surgery. Now Strasburg has shattered that record with a deal worth about 60 percent more than his former teammate got from the Tigers.

And maybe, just maybe, the Nationals have crossed a major hurdle in their continued quest to become one of baseball’s marquee franchises. For all the success they’ve had in the last five years, for all the shrewd trades Rizzo has made and the positive acquisitions he’s added to his roster, they had a highly suspect track record for retaining their best players.

Ryan Zimmerman is the only homegrown player the Nationals have re-signed before becoming a free agent in the last decade. And the only players they’ve ever signed to extensions during a walk year? Nick Johnson, Livan Hernandez, Dmitri Young, Ronnie Belliard, Cristian Guzman and Chad Tracy (the only one in the group re-signed since Rizzo became GM).

Now they can finally say they’ve managed to retain one of their big fish. This means a lot in the big picture. This means you can never say they have no shot of keeping their best players long-term.

Does it mean they’re now more likely to retain the biggest fish of all? We may not know the answer to that question for three more years.

But if the day ever comes that Bryce Harper commits to being a National for life, it may be appropriate to look back on this day for having helped lay the groundwork.

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