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In the midst of a strong season, Stephen Strasburg’s player option looms

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The Washington Nationals could lose one of their top starting pitchers this offseason if Stephen Strasburg decides to exercise his player option.

MLB: Washington Nationals at Philadelphia Phillies Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

When the Washington Nationals jog onto the field for Opening Day next March, their roster could look very different than the one they’ve had in 2019.

Barring an extension, Anthony Rendon is expected to be one of the top free agents available this winter and he will likely be joined by teammates Ryan Zimmerman, Brian Dozier, Howie Kendrick, Yan Gomes and Jeremy Hellickson on the open market.

But behind Rendon, the most highly-coveted Nationals star with the opportunity to take his chances as a free agent this offseason is starting pitcher Stephen Strasburg, who can opt out of the remaining four years and $100 million of his contract after this season.

Strasburg, who turns 31 this weekend, leads the NL with 11 wins while compiling a 3.46 ERA (3.11 FIP), 1.054 WHIP, 144 strikeouts and 3.4 fWAR over 19 starts and 122.1 innings. The most important statistic for the right-hander, however, is probably the number of trips he’s made to the IL this season: zero.

The three-time All-Star has enjoyed incredible success in Washington but has started 30+ games just twice in his 10-year career. He’s on pace to do it for the third time in 2019, raising the question: Should Strasburg opt out of the remainder of his contract?

Given the nature of MLB free agency in recent years, Strasburg would be seeking a deal worth over $100 million in a market that’s seen a majority of players fall short of that number.

In fact, only eight free agents have signed contracts worth nine figures over the last three offseasons: Bryce Harper ($330M), Manny Machado ($300M), Patrick Corbin ($140M), Eric Hosmer ($144M), Yu Darvish ($126M), J.D. Martinez ($110M), Justin Upton ($106M) and Yoenis Cespedes ($110M). Thirteen players inked deals worth $100M+ in the three winters prior and nine did the three offseasons before that.

This comes on the heels of Major League Baseball bringing in a record $10.3 billion in revenue last year, which is worth mentioning because in a vacuum it’d be reasonable to expect more big contracts being handed out to free agents—but that isn’t happening. Instead, players like Dallas Keuchel and Craig Kimbrel are holding out until June to sign with a team because they aren’t receiving what they believe is their true value.

It’s enough to give any player pause about testing the open market, never mind a pitcher like Strasburg who’s on the wrong side of 30 and has an extensive injury history. However, his agent Scott Boras may be able to convince Strasburg that he’ll find a suitor willing to meet his demands, especially given that he’d be one of the best starters available this winter.

Notable 2019-20 free agent starters, last three seasons

Pitcher Age GS IP ERA WHIP SO fWAR
Pitcher Age GS IP ERA WHIP SO fWAR
Gerrit Cole 29 85 526 3.49 1.116 655 12.6
Stephen Strasburg 31 69 427.2 3.16 1.083 504 11.5
Zack Wheeler 30 65 387.2 4.16 1.274 390 7.1
Cole Hamels 36 73 438.1 3.74 1.230 390 6.3
Hyun-Jin Ryu 33 57 321 2.64 1.125 310 5.7
Rick Porcello 31 84 494.1 4.64 1.317 452 5.6
Madison Bumgarner 30 57 352.1 3.53 1.181 325 4.7
Players’ listed age is how old they are on June 30, 2020. Data courtesy of FanGraphs.

Gerrit Cole, Madison Bumgarner, Cole Hamels, Rick Porcello, Hyun-Jin Ryu and Zack Wheeler are all in their contract years and should be in high demand if they become available. Hamels and Ryu will likely sign shorter deals given the former’s age and the latter’s injury issues. Porcello has proven to be an innings eater but likely won’t break the $100 million mark given his decline since winning the AL Cy Young in 2016. That leaves Cole, Bumgarner and Wheeler as true would-be competitors for Strasburg in free agency.

A valid case could be made that Strasburg is the second-best pitcher in that group, and perhaps even the second-most durable. That puts a $100+ million contract well within reach. Of course, Strasburg needs to sustain his success and avoid any IL stints—knock on wood—in order to maintain that status. But he will be in an enviable position this winter if he can.

The Nats did coax Strasburg into signing an extension during the season leading up to what would’ve been his first taste of free agency three years ago. He clearly likes D.C. and has enjoyed a considerable amount of success in the District, including two top-10 NL Cy Young finishes and three stellar postseason starts.

“For me, it’s wanting to have opportunities to play for a championship,” Strasburg told The Washington Post.

“I think [the Nationals] have shown a willingness, so far, to not necessarily go into a rebuild.

“The clock’s ticking for me career-wise, and I want to have every opportunity to get there and hopefully win one.”

But will four years and $100 million be enough to keep him in the nation’s capital? Given the Nats’ commitments to Corbin and Max Scherzer, they might not be willing to go much higher if he does decide to opt out. And if re-signing Rendon is the team’s biggest offseason priority, Washington might even welcome some cleared payroll to make room for a mega-contract.

In just a few months, the former No. 1 overall pick’s decision will help determine the course of the team’s future. It’s too soon to tell what Strasburg might do, but his choice very well could put the Nationals in jeopardy of losing two of their biggest stars for the second-straight offseason.