Strasburg’s Surprising Contract

With a move that seemed to surprise everyone, the Nationals signed one of the best pitchers in baseball to a long term contract. And he happens to be one that is already on the team, Stephen Strasburg.

He really is one of the best in today’s game. Since returning from Tommy John surgery in 2012, he is 13th in MLB in fWAR, 4th in K/9, 13th in ERA+, 9th in FIP, 7th in OPS+ against… and these numbers are somewhat dragged down by the beginning of 2015 when he was pitching when he shouldn’t have been. All that considered, he’s a top 15, maybe a top 10 starter in baseball. And since last summer, he’s probably been the best starter in baseball besides Jake Arrieta.

Still, it wasn’t just a surprise that Strasburg, a Scott Boras client, was willing to sign an extension rather than test the free agent market, a market which most agree he would be the best player available, not just the best pitcher. And boy does that pitching fall of quickly, with names like Scott Kazmir, Andrew Cashner and Mat Latos topping the list.

No, what really shocked me was that the Nats were willing to sign this deal. This is the first time they’ve ever signed or given an extension to a guy who had Tommy John surgery. It’s why I thought they weren’t interested in giving Jordan Zimmermann a huge contract. And it’s why I assumed this was the last season we’d have together with Strasburg.

Not to say that there were infinite opportunities to sign such guys in the four or five seasons that they’ve actually been laying out money for free agent contracts, but the process with Zimmermann seemed indicative of a mindset to not commit to very long deal with such players.

Mike Rizzo isn’t necessarily afraid of Tommy John surgery – drafting Lucas Giolito and Erick Fedde despite knowing that both might very well (and, in the end, did) need that surgery shows that. But is there a useful life to a surgically repaired elbow, a life expectancy? The Nats certainly seemed to think so before this week.

The fact that they gave Strasburg an extension doesn’t mean they no longer believe that, but it just doesn’t seem like they’d do this deal if they thought he’d miss 12+ months in the middle of it. It’s hard to tell if this is a change in the Nats’ mindset, or if we were just looking at, to use the parlance, a small sample size of free agent opportunities. If it was a change, the new medical organization within the team may have had something to do with it.

Speaking of the medical staff, people will tell you that it’s a big mistake because of how injury-prone Strasburg is. He’s certainly got a reputation for that, but is it true? Other than the Tommy John surgery, he has certainly had his share of injuries, but he has actually averaged 29 starts a season. That includes the season where the Nats purposely shut him down after 28 starts to limit his innings.

Ok, so he hasn’t demonstrated Charles Radbourn’s level of durability (although Old Hoss was never quite the same after that 73-start 1884 season), but he hasn’t exactly been Josh Johnson, either. 29 starts a season, what Strasburg has averaged for the last four seasons, would be just fine for everyone involved.

From Strasburg’s perspective, while he passed up some money on the open market – Price and Grienke both got over $200M last year, and given the other free agents, he would’ve gotten that, too – he bought security in a home where he is comfortable.

It seems he appreciates the organization enough to want to stay long term, at a discount, rather than get out as soon as he can. This flies in the face of what was assumed after 2012, but let’s not dwell on that.

Instead, let’s note that the Nats convinces a top-flight player to extend his deal with the team before hitting free agency. It’s a sign that maybe the dynamics in the clubhouse maybe aren’t all that bad, and maybe it’s a place players want to be. And it should make it pretty clear who their next big target should be.

Ceterum censeo Bryce signarum est

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