Posted by: Mike Cornelius | September 12, 2019

Does He Stay Or Does He Go?

Stephen Strasburg has a decision to make. Once upon a not so distant time the choice he’ll face this offseason would have been virtually automatic, an easy call in a world of steadily growing paydays for any ballplayer who, like the 31-year-old right-handed pitcher, was among the best in the major leagues. But that was then and this is now, so whether or not Strasburg, the top pick in the 2009 draft who has spent his entire career in a Washington Nationals uniform chooses to opt out of the remaining four years of his current contract will speak volumes about how players, and baseball’s most powerful agent, view the Great Game’s current economic landscape.

Many fans were surprised – those in the D.C. area pleasantly so – when Strasburg and the Nationals announced they had come to terms on a 7-year contract extension early in the 2016 season. The deal would pay the Nats’ starter $175 million over its term, but by signing it he foreclosed the chance to test free agency when he would have first been eligible later that year. It was that latter point that made the signing especially noteworthy, because Strasburg’s agent Scott Boras was then, and remains today, well-known for encouraging his charges to at least sample the free agent waters before wading back to a familiar shore and signing an extension with their current team.

But as headlines do, the ones announcing the basic elements of Strasburg’s contract missed a couple of key points. One was that much of the money was deferred, a favorite contract term of the Lerner family that owns the Washington franchise. At times it seems like the Lerner’s are intent on surpassing the New York Mets record for paying players long after they’ve retired, set years ago when that star-crossed club saved a few short-term dollars by agreeing to pay Bobby Bonilla $1.19 million annually, starting a decade later and continuing for twenty-five years.

Still there’s little evidence that Strasburg has been forced to carpool to Nats games because his current paychecks are smaller than advertised, so the more important details of his 2016 extension were a pair of player options, giving Strasburg the freedom to walk away from the contract at the end of either the third or fourth year. The first of those opt-outs arrives this coming offseason.

As noted above, the decision, especially for a player with Scott Boras whispering in his ear, would once have been obvious. A starter with a solid record and the likelihood of several strong years ahead of him, Strasburg would have been expected to exercise his option and test the market this winter. The fact that Boras appears to have a particularly strong relationship with the Washington organization would, perhaps counterintuitively, make that even more likely, since in the worst case the agent could rely on that relationship to bring the parties back together even after the inevitable negative reaction to a potential split.

But as noted here on multiple occasions and in many other forums, the Great Game’s dynamic between players and owners has shifted strongly in the latter’s favor. Over the past few seasons free agents in their thirties have found it increasingly hard to secure contracts, and most teams have grown loathe to offer long-term deals, especially to pitchers. Even superstars, while ultimately still signing fat contracts, have had a harder time getting deals done, as evidenced by last offseason’s long quiet winter for Manny Machado and Bryce Harper. In the current atmosphere, were he not an elite starter Strasburg might well decide that a hundred million in hand – the amount he’s owed over the last four years of his current deal – is too good of a payday to risk losing. Whether that caveat is relevant hinges on how Strasburg is perceived.

In the eyes of many fans he has not lived up to his promise. That’s partly because of the level of hype that accompanied Strasburg’s arrival. When he debuted in June 2010 for a team that would lose more than 90 games the contest was nationally televised. That night he recorded fourteen strikeouts in seven innings of work with a fastball that touched 100 miles per hour and a curve that fooled even wily veterans. The headline in this space was “The Phenom is Phenomenal,” and that was temperate compared to some reports. But even the best starter can only impact one game in five, and the idea that Strasburg would singlehandedly turn the last place Nationals into contenders was never realistic.

If excessive expectations weren’t enough, he has also been hampered by injuries. Little more than a month after that first, electric, evening, Strasburg went on the Injured List for the first time. Shortly after returning his career suffered a major blow when he was diagnosed with a torn UCL. Tommy John surgery and most of a season on the shelf followed. In the years since he has lost playing time to a variety of ailments.

But the focus on Strasburg’s injuries obscures what he has accomplished. Since he first donned a Washington uniform, he is one of 88 pitchers to have thrown at least 1,000 innings. Among that group Strasburg ranks fourth in Fielding Independent Pitching and strikeout rate, and eighth in ERA+. Despite ranking just thirtieth in innings pitched during that period because of time lost to injuries, he is twelfth in Wins Above Replacement. This year he leads the National League in innings pitched and has the second lowest WHIP of his career. While wins and losses are dismissed by those enamored of modern metrics, most teams would likely welcome his 17-6 record.

If Strasburg does opt out, it’s certain that Boras, famous for his voluminous binders of material on his players, will bury interested general managers with reams of statistics like those above, even as questions about Strasburg’s durability linger in the back of their minds. The question the pitcher and his agent face is whether there are teams out there willing to focus on the former and set aside the latter, to the tune of something more than $100 million.

Strasburg could wait a year and exercise his second option. But that’s rolling the dice on what next season brings, from a down year for performance to the chance of another injury. Or he could play out his current deal and test the market at age thirty-five. Good luck with that. No, what seems most likely is that Stephen Strasburg will soon become a free agent. If he doesn’t, it will be the surest sign yet that the Great Game’s dynamic between owners and players remains heavily tilted in management’s favor.

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