- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 17, 2016

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

Catching lightning in a bottle is rare.

Keeping it contained is hopeless.

The Washington Nationals became just the second team in MLB history to snare the No. 1 pick in back-to-back years. Amazingly, the top players available in those drafts — Stephen Strasburg in 2009 and Bryce Harper in 2010 — were the all-time most-hyped pitcher and hitter ever.

Visions of Cy Young and MVP trophies flashed through the heads of Nationals fans, too numb from back-to-back 100-loss seasons to think about pennants and World Series titles. But the belief was Strasburg and Harper eventually would lead Washington from the abyss into the glorious light of contention.

The duo did just that, helping the team capture two National League East titles in a three-year span. They’ll give it another go this year.

After that, Strasburg is gone.

I could be wrong and wouldn’t mind if that’s the case, but having failed to reach agreement on a contract extension before pitchers and catchers report to spring training on Thursday, Strasburg is unlikely to have a long-term presence in Washington. We might as well come to grips with that right now.

The parties avoided arbitration last month when they agreed on a one-year deal worth $10.4 million. Now, Strasburg’s main concern is bouncing back from an injury-plagued 2015 season, even though he was outstanding down the stretch with a 1.91 ERA in August and September.

Harper had a pretty good year, too, posting historic numbers to become the NL’s third-youngest MVP winner. He’s under team control for three more seasons before he can enter free agency, where he’s speculated to sign baseball’s richest-ever contract. With talk of a $500 million contract if Harper hits the open market, the Nationals need the resouces to keep him from eager bidders.

Consequently, keeping Strasburg in a Washington uniform — in a rotation with $210 million ace Max Scherzer — seems improbable at best. He’s poised to enter free agency as the top-rated pitcher and has every reason to do so.

“We amicably agreed to a one-year deal [for 2016],” agent Scott Boras told Fox Sports on Monday. “He’s going to pitch, and we’ll see where it goes from there. It’s something we’ll be discussing at the end of the year.”

The end of the year equals the end of the road here for Strasburg.

It won’t be anyone’s fault. There won’t be any blame to assign. Like the law of gravity, baseball’s economic structure keeps teams grounded in an irrefutable truth: They can’t keep everyone.

Cellar-dwelling teams usually have few players worth preserving, but when franchises develop homegrown stars and begin rising in the standings, difficult decisions follow. We saw it last year with the departures of Jordan Zimmermann and Ian Desmond via free agency and Drew Storen via trade.

In baseball, it’s impossible to keep the band together.

General manager Mike Rizzo was asked about Strasburg’s long-term future at the Winter Meetings, before the sides settled on the one-year deal. “We’ve always tried to think about our core players, to extend them to contracts,” Rizzo told reporters in December. “We tried it with several of the players that have left us for free agency in the past. I would conceive we would do the same for him.”

Rizzo already has done a lot for Strasburg, taking a ton of grief for the controversial shutdown in 2012. Strasburg repaid him by setting career highs with 183 in innings pitched in 2013 and 215 in 2014 before neck and oblique strains led to curtailed production in 127 1/3 innings last season.

The Nationals have done a great job with him,” Boras told Fox. “They’ve listened to the doctors, and all you can ask of a team is that they listen to the doctors. They have. Stephen and the team have benefited from that.”

Washington has more year to benefit before the protective measure pays off for another team. Such is life.

Given the choice to keep Strasburg or Harper, most fans would agree that the young slugger is the priority. There’s a feeling that the former ace became a short-timer the moment Scherzer signed.

Break-ups are never easy, especially when they involve high-profile stars who have worn no other uniform in the majors. We want these relationships to last forever, like Cal Ripken Jr. in Baltimore and Derek Jeter in The Bronx.

But fairy tales rarely come true. The Nationals will take their shot with Harper and it makes the most sense.

Washington hit the lottery with back-to-back No. 1 picks at the precise moment Strasburg and Harper were available.

Never losing one of them is the only scenario with longer odds.

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