Strasburg delivered just in time to merit huge payday

As our offseason coverage kicks into high gear, we’re going to review each significant player on the Nationals roster. We continue today with Stephen Strasburg, who made it through a full season healthy for the first time in five years and then topped it off with a history-making postseason.

Strasburg-Delivers-Blue-WS-G2-Sidebar.jpgPLAYER REVIEW: STEPHEN STRASBURG

Age on opening day 2020: 31

How acquired: First-round pick, 2009 draft

MLB service time: 9 years, 118 days

2019 salary: $35 million

Contract status: Free agent after opting out of remainder of contract

2019 stats: 18-6, 3.32 ERA, 33 GS, 0 CG, 209 IP, 161 H, 79 R, 77 ER, 24 HR, 56 BB, 251 SO, 10 HBP, 1.038 WHIP, 138 ERA+, 3.25 FIP, 5.7 fWAR, 6.3 bWAR

2019 postseason stats: 5-0, 1.98 ERA, 6 G, 5 GS, 36 1/3 IP, 30 H, 9 R, 8 ER, 4 HR, 4 BB, 47 SO, 0 HBP, 0.936 WHIP

Quotable: “I think I’ve really learned that if I focus on the things that I can control, and I think I’ve learned that I’m a perfectionist, I’ve learned that I’m a control freak. And in this game it’s very hard to be perfect. It’s very hard to control things. But the one thing that you can control is your approach and how you handle your business off the field. And when you go out there and compete, it’s just about execution. And you put in all the work in the offseason, in between starts, to go out there and try and be the best version of yourself. And that’s something you can control every time.” - Strasburg

2019 analysis: Though the end result was something special, the road Strasburg took to get there did have a few bumps along the way. He gave up 14 runs in his first 22 2/3 innings. He was unexpectedly blasted by the Diamondbacks twice over the summer (performances that may in part have been the result of him tipping his pitches). As of Aug. 15, he owned a pedestrian 3.82 ERA.

Few will remember any of that, nor should they, because Strasburg didn’t just finish strong. He finished as well as he possibly could, on both a personal and collective level. Over his final 16 regular season starts, he went 9-2 with a 2.70 ERA and .195 opponents’ batting average. More importantly, he led the league in innings pitched for the first time in his career, never once missing a start due to physical ailment, a major achievement for a pitcher whose career to date had been defined as much by the times he didn’t start as the times he did.

Strasburg, though, saved his very best for last. He didn’t get the starting assignment for the wild card game, but he did pitch in relief that night and posted three scoreless innings behind Max Scherzer to keep the Nationals in position to rally late to win. He then made five starts over the rest of October and merely became the first pitcher in major league history to go 5-0 in a single postseason, earning World Series MVP honors after dominant performances in Games 2 and 6.

Statistically, Strasburg has had better seasons. But he’s never had a more important one than this.

2020 outlook: Throughout the season, the question did loom underneath the surface: Would Strasburg opt out of the final four years of his contract with the Nationals? Three days after celebrating the World Series clincher, he did. The rationale: On the heels of his historic season, the right-hander could command something better than the four years and $100 million his original contact still guaranteed him.

That seems like a safe bet at this point. Strasburg should be able to command at least six years in a new deal, with an average annual salary of $30 million or more. Will the Nationals be willing to make that kind of extra commitment to the guy they once handed one of the biggest signing bonuses in draft history? There remains a strong belief they will, and that the right-hander will want to accept it, given his seemingly genuine appreciation for the organization that has taken such good care of him and the town that has embraced him as one of its own.

There is, however, a reasonable argument that the Nationals (or any team interested in Strasburg’s services) needs to be careful not to break the bank for him. The Nats already had committed to him through age 35. In order to keep him, they’ll probably have to commit to him through at least age 37, at an exceptionally high salary. There is legitimate risk in that, especially for a pitcher who has made more than 28 starts only once in the last five seasons and just finished 2019 having thrown a whopping 245 1/3 innings.

In the end, the Nats probably have no choice but to make a huge offer to Strasburg and leave the ball in his court. The public-relations hit they’d take for letting him walk now - especially if they also don’t re-sign Anthony Rendon - would be massive. Yes, they have make sure they’re making decisions more with their head than their heart right now, but there’s probably room for one or two heartfelt transactions that may not make perfect sense to the rational mind.

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