Well, the hot stove is officially lit. An eye-popping $245 million deal for ace Stephen Strasburg to return to the Nationals got the fun started on the first day of baseball’s winter meetings in San Diego. As the defending champions bring back their World Series MVP, we asked ESPN.com’s Bradford Doolittle, Sam Miller and David Schoenfield to weigh in on what the deal means for Strasburg, the Nats and the rest of this MLB offseason.
Gut reaction: Do you like this deal for the Nationals?
David Schoenfield: Hey, it’s not my money! This guy just carried your team to a World Series title, but that’s also a very large chunk of change for a pitcher who just topped 176 innings for the first time since 2014. There’s nothing wrong with bringing him back and continuing to construct your team around the big three of Strasburg, Max Scherzer and Patrick Corbin, but at this price I’d rather have Anthony Rendon and the more predictable outcome of a position player. Of course, it’s also possible that Strasburg stays healthy and has five or six more dominant seasons — much like his teammate Scherzer has done in his 30s. In fact, if Strasburg continues to pitch well throughout this contract, he’s a sleeper Hall of Fame candidate, as he does have 112 career wins, 32.6 WAR and a great record in the postseason.
Bradford Doolittle: If it’s a choice between Strasburg and Rendon, I guess I’d have gone for Rendon. But for all we know at the moment, it’s a choice that might not have existed. Strasburg has made about 85% of his starts since his first full season after Tommy John surgery, though he’s hit 200 innings only twice. It’s that lesser track record of durability that separated him from Gerrit Cole in my mind, so I was thinking five or six years for Stras as opposed to seven or eight for the latter. But no one knows him better than the Nats and if they think he’s ready to reel off a string of 15-20 win seasons, then they can figure out the back end of the deal later. Pitchers this good are just so scarce.
Sam Miller: I do. If your owner has a net worth of $5 billion, it’s a lot harder to find a pitcher like Stephen Strasburg than to find a big pile of money.
This is a True Ace contract, and there’s a tendency to overlook just how highly Strasburg ranks among MLB pitchers — partly because he pitches in the same rotation as one of the few superior pitchers in the world, partly because he shares a free-agency class with another of them. But over the past three years Strasburg has the seventh-best ERA in baseball (including the postseason), the 12th-most innings and the sixth-most WAR. It’s true that he’s 31; it’s also true that he’s had his two best seasons over the past three years, and from July 1 onward this year he had a 2.51 ERA, including his month against postseason offenses. He hasn’t had a major injury in nearly a decade. He’s on a team that will compete for a postseason appearance and will find that the margin between making and missing October is one Stephen Strasburg.
Who is the biggest winner of Strasburg rejoining the Nationals?
Schoenfield: Obviously, Strasburg. You kept hearing how he’s comfortable in Washington, had bought a house in the area and preferred to remain with the only organization he’s known. The money made it an easy decision. If there’s a ripple effect here, Madison Bumgarner has to be happy. He can now pitch teams that you can get him for half of Strasburg’s contract — and get a pitcher more than half as good.
Doolittle: Gerrit Cole and Scott Boras. My assumption had been that a bat-stuff crazy offer for Cole would end up at something like 8/$280 million. Now I’m wondering if it ends up around 9/$300-plus million. Which is nuts. But he’s now in a market of one. Of course, while the need for him is ubiquitous, the demand doesn’t exactly correlate because not many teams can play in this arena.
Miller: Strasburg’s eventual biographer. His career — from the most highly touted draft prospect ever to a possible Hall of Famer — is so much more compelling when it all happens in one jersey. The pick of Strasburg in the 2009 draft was the catalyst for a golden age of Washington baseball, climaxing with a World Series run in which Strasburg had an all-time great October. It seems plausible that he’s only peaking now, and the next seven years could comprise — in addition to an eventual decline — more postseason runs, Cy Young votes, milestone pursuits and franchise records. When it’s over, there will be a statue of him outside Nationals Park. They usually don’t put statues up for half careers.
Who is the biggest loser of Strasburg going back to the Nationals?
Schoenfield: The New York Mets. They’ve seen the Phillies sign Zack Wheeler, the Braves sign Cole Hamels and the Nationals re-sign Strasburg. Meanwhile, the Mets have … well, they traded for a center fielder who had a .280 OBP last season.
Doolittle: Padres fans. I don’t know if San Diego even tried to sign Strasburg, though they should have been beating down his door. Inking the hometown kid to head up an emerging pitching staff would have been storybook stuff. Of course, perhaps the scenario was always just a fantasy.
Miller: Besides the Mets and the Phillies — who now look like they’ll be fighting for third place again, at least in the short term and barring other major moves — it’s probably whichever team ends up with Gerrit Cole. This Strasburg deal comes a day after we heard that the Yankees had offered Cole $245 million. If they really believed they had a shot with that number, they (and anybody else in the running) is going to need to adjust those expectations, by at least $50 million and maybe a lot more. Actually, it’s probably whoever doesn’t end up with Cole. Strasburg is no longer around as a fallback.
Now that Strasburg is returning to the Nationals, who is the favorite to land Anthony Rendon?
Jeff Passan explains why it will be difficult for the Nationals to sign Anthony Rendon after their record setting contract for Stephen Strasburg.
Schoenfield: I’ll go with the Rangers. They’ve signed Kyle Gibson and Jordan Lyles to join Mike Minor and Lance Lynn in the rotation, but they still have a gaping hole at third base and the money to bring Rendon back to his home state. Rendon is an intriguing fit for the Dodgers, but based on recent track record of how the Dodgers spend in free agency, the Rangers are more likely to give a bigger, long-team contract.
Doolittle: Dodgers. Rendon and Cole are the only players left on the market sure to actually make the Dodgers better. Rendon seems like the more obtainable of the two at present.
Miller: Technically, it’s probably still the Nationals — almost always safer to pick the incumbent than one of the half-dozen other admirers — but if we’re assuming Strasburg’s signing makes this less likely, I’ll go with the Braves. If Josh Donaldson leaves, third base is their big hole, and adding a superstar like Rendon might be necessary to hold off the Nationals — who, it should be noted, had the better run differential last year and nearly chased down Atlanta.
Will the $245 million deal Strasburg is getting hold up as the biggest of the week?
Schoenfield: I’ll say yes (meaning Cole won’t sign this week).
Doolittle: No! Let’s get greedy and sign them all while we’re here! But, yeah, probably not. Strasburg, we have to presume, simply didn’t want to leave a comfy home and wanted to get this over with and return to his life of low-key excellence. Cole and Rendon both have time to squeeze a market that’s even more focused for them.
Miller: Yeah. I would expect Scott Boras to let the reality of this winter’s market — that if you’re bidding, you need to adjust your expectations upward — sink in. With no elite pitchers available on the trade market this offseason, Cole in particular can probably afford to wait.