The one thing Stephen Strasburg never seems to be kept him in Washington. Finally, after seven years in the city and eight in the organization, he felt comfortable.
He has never moved toward the brighter lights on purpose. Strasburg would rather arrive at the park with the extravagance of a shadow, allowing the red Ford E-350 sitting outside the home plate gate with his image on it to be the maximum of his exposure.
When he explained on Tuesday afternoon the joy he felt after signing a seven-year, $175 million contract extension, Strasburg was fighting through the parts of this business he could do without. Being among the first to the park to run on the treadmill is fine. Working at pitching in an obsessive way is standard. But, press conferences, talking about himself? He could skip those, even now, when he’s a more extroverted version of the California kid that reached the major leagues flooded in hype in 2010.
Yet, the Nationals made a San Diego ocean-lover feel settled enough that he didn’t want to go into free agency as the lone headliner of a flimsy free agent pitching class. Past support — notably through the internal and external grumblings around his shutdown because of an innings limit in 2012 — helped lead to a new agreement. It’s the most lucrative contract in baseball history for someone who had Tommy John surgery, a deal that allows his wife, Rachel, and 2-year-old daughter to know where they will be for at least the next few years.
“I think what they believe in and what I believe in kind of coincide,” Strasburg said of the organization.
Working toward the extension began in spring training. Strasburg said then he was unsure how he would react to pitching in a free-agent year for the first time. Nationals owner Ted Lerner had called Strasburg’s heavyweight agent, Scott Boras, and told him the organization was interested in working out a new deal. Boras relayed that to Strasburg. The grinding of numbers and words began, then trickled into the season. At that point, Strasburg asked for minimal involvement, not wanting to be distracted further by negotiations.
SEE ALSO: LOVERRO: Stephen Strasburg’s deal further validates Mike Rizzo’s shutdown plan
“To be honest, it’s hard to block something like out,” Strasburg said. “It’s your future and your kid’s kids’ future, too.”
The news of the deal spilled out Monday while Strasburg was pitching. He strode off the mound in the eighth inning, irritated he had walked Detroit Tigers slugger Miguel Cabrera on four pitches to end his night, when a fan yelled, “Congrats.” After minimal processing, it occurred to Strasburg his secret may be out. A look at his phone in the clubhouse confirmed that what he had known for about two weeks was now known by the public.
Even his teammates didn’t know what was happening when Strasburg left during last week’s road trip in Kansas City. He was gone for a day, though his departure wasn’t an instant alarm. Since he carries himself in such a quiet manner, Strasburg not being around was just a subtle ripple in the day. The internal party line was that he was attending to a family matter. Really, he was undergoing a physical as part of the final steps in signing the extension.
“It’s all starting to make sense now,” fellow starter Tanner Roark said. “Usually, he’d be in there before I even got there. He still wasn’t in the weight room or on the treadmill sweating like he usually is. I thought it was family. I didn’t want to invade personal privacy. Now, it makes sense.”
Max Scherzer stood off to the side during Strasburg’s press conference and processed general manager Mike Rizzo’s explanation of what occurred in Kansas City. Together, Strasburg and Scherzer total a maximum commitment of $385 million from the Nationals. Strasburg has opt-outs in his new contract, possibly positioning him to enter free agency after he turns 30 years old.
“He was keeping secrets,” Scherzer said. “He said something about family. What the heck is going on? He’s back the next day. [I thought], ‘Well, that’s odd.’”
Like with Scherzer, and perhaps Bryce Harper down the road, the Nationals will now be measured by the titanic investments in their two top starting pitchers. Rizzo opened his comments by lauding team ownership, which was seated in its customary front-row seats at major press conferences.
“We thank you for all the dough,” Rizzo said. “It really helped.”
As did the timing. Rizzo and Boras agreed afterward that the negotiation window was tight because their conversations had moved from spring training into the season. Strasburg was looking at three scenarios: Agree to the extension early, let it drag out during the season, or pitch the rest of the season knowing he and the Nationals could not come to an agreement despite their mutual interest.
“I think it would have happened now or it would not have happened,” Rizzo said.
“We kind of gave it a shorter window, about a month or so into the season to make a decision on both sides,” Boras said. “Stephen really didn’t want any part of this, so once we got into significant areas, obviously, I had to involve him.”
The surprising circumstances are over now. Strasburg doesn’t have to keep a secret anymore. Boras has broken personal tradition and had a major client sign an extension instead of move into free agency. The Nationals have lavished funds on a pitcher who previously had Tommy John surgery. All that behind him, Strasburg can get back to baseball, which is what he’s most comfortable with in the first place.