Strasburg seemingly will benefit from 2012 call

Nationals preserved his arm, but will it cost them his arm after this season?

May 4th, 2016

Almost exactly four years ago, as the early-season success of Stephen Strasburg and the Washington Nationals captured national attention, Bill Shaikin wrote in the Los Angeles Times about the Nationals' plan to shut down their young ace.

"You have a five-year plan," Strasburg's agent, Scott Boras, told Shaikin then. "Do you want to take the risk of pitching that starter for a full season and not having him for the other four years?"

It's now 2016, the fifth year of the five-year plan.

Did the Nationals make the right decision in 2012, when Strasburg's season ended Sept. 7 after 159 1/3 innings? Some say yes, because he's healthy and thriving today, six years after Tommy John surgery. Others say no, because the Nats have yet to win a postseason series, much less a World Series championship, since baseball returned to our nation's capital in 2005.

The debate may persist for years, but the symbiotic relationship between the Nationals and Strasburg -- at least, in its original incarnation -- is about to end: Strasburg is eligible for free agency after this season.

Could Strasburg re-sign with the Nats? Sure. But there's absolutely no indication that Boras is working on an extension for him. It would defy logic, not to mention Boras' track record, to forgo an opportunity at free agency when Strasburg, who turns 28 in July, is on track to be the most coveted pitcher on the open market this offseason.

Thus, it's entirely likely that by taking measures to preserve his arm in 2012, the Nationals provided Strasburg the best opportunity to sign a lucrative contract somewhere else four years later. The best hope for managing principal owner Theodore N. Lerner and general manager Mike Rizzo is that Strasburg will help them earn a World Series ring before his potential departure.

Fortunately for them, the Nats' chances of doing so are as realistic as just about any other team, with the possible exception of the Chicago Cubs. After Wednesday's start in which he held the Royals to two runs over six innings in the Nationals' 13-2 win, Strasburg moved to 5-0 with a 2.36 ERA. His rate stats were at, or near, career bests.

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The Nationals' rotation is arguably the deepest in baseball -- Max Scherzer, Strasburg, Gio Gonzalez, Tanner Roark and Joe Ross -- and is second in the Majors with a 2.16 ERA. Rizzo remade the bullpen over the offseason with encouraging results. The offense has been ordinary outside of Bryce Harper and Daniel Murphy, but there's plenty of potential if even one of Ryan Zimmerman, Anthony Rendon and Jayson Werth approaches previous levels of production.

The anticipated rematch of last year's pennant race with the New York Mets will be an entertaining distraction from Strasburg's free-agent countdown, but that discussion will come soon enough.

Last offseason, Jordan Zimmermann -- Strasburg's former teammate in Washington -- became the first Tommy John recipient to sign a contract worth more than $100 million. Zimmermann's five-year, $110 million deal with the Detroit Tigers is cited by some in the industry as a floor for what Strasburg can expect this offseason; Zimmermann has been healthier than Strasburg over time, but Strasburg has performed better.

Injuries -- and the Nats' restraint in 2012 -- have limited Strasburg to a single 200-inning season, in 2014. That may frighten some teams, but Boras likely will argue that Strasburg's arm is "fresher" as a result. He'll certainly point to greater freedom of movement after a non-cancerous growth was removed from his back last offseason. The soft-spoken Strasburg will make the loudest declaration of all if he takes every rotation turn throughout this season.

Strasburg will be aided by yet another factor this offseason: The right teams need starting pitchers. The Boston Red Sox and New York Yankees both rank among the bottom third in the Majors in rotation ERA; both teams are expected to enter the offseason needing at least one top-end starter, if not two. Meanwhile, the Los Angeles Dodgers have yet to truly replace Zack Greinke's presence alongside ace Clayton Kershaw.

When multiple large-market teams need a client described as a "premium" talent, Boras almost always scores a massive contract. He'll probably do the same with Strasburg -- which, in this context, would mean a record-setting deal for a Tommy John recipient, perhaps six years in the range of $150 million.

Of course, all of that assumes Strasburg continues pitching as he has this season, or reasonably close to it. In one sense, the Nationals hope Strasburg's next contract is among the biggest ever for a pitcher because that will mean he's healthy and productive for the balance of 2016. And if Strasburg is destined to pitch elsewhere next year, the Lerners sure would appreciate him leaving behind a flag to fly atop Nationals Park. They wouldn't be interested in one that says, "Thanks for taking care of my arm."