Stephen Strasburg entered the Nationals organization in 2009 as a 21-year-old super-prospect, an essentially finished product ready to pitch in the majors. A decade later, he has more than lived up to the hype, averaging four wins per season even after missing nearly all of the 2011 season due to Tommy John surgery. The decade culminated with Strasburg’s best season, 36.1 brilliant postseason innings, and a World Series championship. After opting out of the final four seasons and $100 million owed to him under his previous contract, the Nationals made Strasburg’s return their top priority, with the team and player agreed to a record $245 million deal covering the next seven seasons as first reported by Jon Heyman. Ken Rosenthal reports that Strasburg also receives a no-trade clause with multiple award incentives with annual salaries of $35 million with $80 million in deferrals spread out equally over the contract to be paid with interest. Joel Sherman has indicated the deferrals will be paid in the first three years after the contract’s end.
In his post earlier this afternoon, Dan Szymborksi posted Strasburg’s ZiPS projections for the duration of the deal. Those projections gave Strasburg an impressive 27.5 WAR for his age-31 through age-37 seasons. According to Szymborksi’s projection, the $245 million figure is essentially a fair one. But the deal is still surprising for its magnitude. When FanGraphs crowdsourced free agent contracts for the Top 50 Free Agents post, the median contract estimate for Strasburg came out to $140 million with an average of about $154 million; Kiley McDaniel’s prediction came in at $150 million. With Strasburg and Gerrit Cole the only bonafide aces available, and multiple teams willing to dole out large sums of money for those aces, the market for Strasburg was evidently robust. As Scott Boras looks set to pit the Yankees and Angels against each other for Cole, Strasburg sat waiting as a potential backup option. Rather than run the risk of losing Strasburg to the Cole runner-up, Washington opted to jump the market and paid to avoid a potential bidding war.
There are certainly risks involved with signing a pitcher into his mid-to-late 30s. Strasburg has a Tommy John surgery in his past. From 2015 through 2018, he averaged under 150 innings, but innings totals can be a double-edged sword when looking at longevity. Strasburg’s low innings totals in the past can be held against him, just as the 245.1 innings he threw in 2019 can be held against him due to the extra mileage it put on his arm. Ultimately, the Nationals are paying Strasburg for what they expect him to do in the future. As noted above, Strasburg’s projections are good. To get a slightly better sense of how pitchers like Strasburg have performed, I looked for players within two wins of Strasburg’s 18 WAR from age 27 through 30 years old. I took out any player with more than 200 innings than Strasburg’s 662 during that time and looked at players within two wins of Strasburg’s 5.7 WAR total in 2019. I was left with eight players:
Strasburg comes up a bit short in his innings total, though his 50.1 postseason innings aren’t included above. It’s also worth mentioning that the two players closest to Strasburg in terms of innings were Curt Schilling and Roy Halladay. Four of the eight players above are already Hall of Famers. Kevin Brown and Schilling both have good cases for induction as well. Here’s how those eight players performed over their next three seasons:
There isn’t a bust in the group, and the players above actually got better in their early 30s, averaging five wins per season. The worst comp during those years is Bert Blyleven, who still managed to pitch close to 400 innings and average more than three wins per season. It’s possible that showing Strasburg’s near-term future as a largely positive one doesn’t say much that we don’t already know. What about the out years of the contract, when Strasburg’s deal might become a liability? Here’s how those same eight pitchers fared from age-34 through age-37, in what will be the last four years of Strasburg’s contract:
Out of all of Strasburg’s comps, only one pitcher, Shane Reynolds, aged poorly. Roy Halladay’s injuries prevented him from pitching longer, but he still managed 10.5 WAR after his age-33 season. While Randy Johnson’s incredible career is doing a decent amount of work above, the pitchers averaged four wins per year in their mid-to-late-30s. Even looking at the median gives us 3.7 WAR per season during that time. We don’t know for sure how Strasburg will age, and injuries could certainly derail the latter half of his career, but pitchers who have pitched like Strasburg have aged incredibly well. The average WAR totals for these pitchers from age-31 through age-37 was 32.1 WAR with a 28.7 WAR median, even beating the ZiPS projections.
The Nationals are taking a risk with Strasburg, but it’s possible their bigger risk isn’t in signing Strasburg, but in what that signing might mean for the team’s pursuit of Anthony Rendon. Mark Lerner recently indicated the club would not be able to sign both Strasburg and Rendon, though as I noted at the time, even if both were given contracts for $30 million per year, it would represent only $6 million more than they made with the Nationals in 2019. Earlier today, I posed a question to our readers asking who they think the Nationals would be better off pursuing between the two free agents. In the hours that followed, more than 1,000 readers weighed in; by nearly a 2-1 margin preferred Rendon to Strasburg. Tilting the scales even more given what we know now, the expected contract in the poll for Strasburg was $100 million less than what he’s actually set to receive, while Rendon’s contract came in at $210 million. The Nationals probably won’t regret signing Stephen Strasburg, but it’s possible they might regret letting Rendon go, if that’s what transpires.
Even with Strasburg’s $35 million salary (with some deferrals with interest), the Nationals payroll still comes to just $165 million, well below the $200 million-plus payrolls they’ve been carrying the last few years. If the team doesn’t keep Rendon, perhaps they will sign Josh Donaldson, but it certainly looks like the team has payroll room. Outside of Rendon and Donaldson, there aren’t any other impact position players available. The team is roughly one good player away from making themselves favorites in the National League East. Bringing back Strasburg is a positive move for next season and beyond, but they still have a little more work to do if they want to get back to the playoffs next season.
Craig Edwards can be found on twitter @craigjedwards.