- - Tuesday, December 10, 2019

The news that Stephen Strasburg had signed a record seven-year, $245 million contract to likely finish his career with the Washington Nationals had to feel a little bittersweet for local baseball fans.

On one hand, welcome back, Strasburg! On the other, goodbye Anthony Rendon.

If we are to take Nationals owner Mark Lerner at his word, the family has no plans to sign both Strasburg and Rendon, teammates on this year’s World Series championship team who became free agents after the last out of Game 7 in Houston.

Mind you, it’s not that the Lerners can’t sign both. It’s that the family has determined they won’t sign both — can’t afford it, they say.

“We really can only afford to have one of those two guys,” Lerner told NBC Sports Washington last week. “They’re huge numbers. We already have a really large payroll to begin with. So we’re pursuing them, we’re pursuing other free agents in case they decide to go elsewhere.”

General manager Mike Rizzo tried to diffuse speculation about the departure of Rendon by telling reporters at the baseball winter meetings in San Diego this week that the vault was not closed yet.

“Well, when you look at those comments, and then you look at the structure of this particular deal and the structure of deals we’ve had getting up to where we are right now, I think that Mark realizes that there’s ways to fit players in,” Rizzo said. “There’s ways that you can field a championship-caliber roster. And, again, the resources have always been there. So I don’t expect that to change.”

Rizzo realizes that the Lerners are the Lerners.

It was interesting to hear Rizzo, who isn’t ready to wave the white flag on the Rendon negotiations, trying to downplay his boss’s comments.

Agent Scott Boras said his client Strasburg wanted a contract that gave the Nationals the flexibility to continue to put together championship-caliber rosters — which sounded like he hasn’t given up either on the team signing Rendon — also represented by Boras.

Strasburg talked frequently during the contract negotiations “about his teammates and what it meant to play with them,” Boras said. “I think when you go to do these contracts — in fairness to Mark and everyone else — is you really don’t know what can be done inside a contract to create opportunities so that aspects of the team can be looked at a little differently than was even anticipated. And Stephen had that in mind when he directed me to negotiate and create a value, a fair-market value for him, but also a structure that allowed the team to continue at a championship level.”

If somehow the Lerners do reach into their very deep, very rich pockets and re-sign Rendon, they would be making a huge investment in establishing a presence among sports fans in this town that could not only bypass, but bury the football team masquerading as an NFL franchise.

Re-signing Strasburg is a big first step to doing just that.

Strasburg, the World Series MVP, blossomed into the pitcher everyone dreamed he would become after his memorable debut in 2010 against the Pittsburgh Pirates.

In his 10 years in the majors, all with the Nationals, he’s been great at times, good other times and frustrating throughout. Last season, it all came together: A healthy 18-6 record, 251 strikeouts and 209 innings pitched (leading all of baseball) punctuated by a historic, dominant 5-0 postseason.

With his teammates and the organization this year, he found a personal comfort level that made him one of the leaders in the clubhouse. At times, he was the team’s Buddha, philosophically weighing in on the ups and downs of baseball — like this one before his clutch Game 6 World Series win against Houston: “You know it’s going to be a storm out there. You’re going to weather it.”

So of course you want to bring that guy back. But that guy is 31, nine years removed from Tommy John surgery. Strasburg has made 227 starts and pitched 1,371 regular-season innings, with nine postseason appearances and 55 postseason innings pitched, since that surgery.

If you believe that pitchers with Tommy John surgery have an expiration date, then investing seven more years and another $245 million is a real gamble. You have to assume, though, that nobody knows that risk better than Rizzo and the Nationals, who took Strasburg with the first pick in the 2009 draft. Nobody is more familiar with Strasburg’s medical situation and is in a better position to determine the odds on that gamble.

Those odds look even better if Strasburg stays healthy.

But a Rendon departure would mean the Nationals would have let go of two of their three first-round picks from 2009 to 2011, with the 2010 selection, Bryce Harper, exiting last year. That is not good business, especially since Washington has not hit particularly well on their first-round picks since then.

Rendon, 29, is more complicated than Strasburg, in the sense that he may not have the same affinity for staying in Washington that Strasburg did. He is hard to read, and watched his best friend on the team, Daniel Murphy, go from New York to Washington to Colorado. He is being wooed by his home-state Texas Rangers, who are opening a new ballpark next season.

The time, of course, to have signed Rendon was before this season, when he was more affordable and still under Nationals control. He had a career year this season, and was coming off three strong years, batting .270, .301 and .308, with 69 home runs, 277 RBI and 260 runs scored.

A long-term investment in Rendon, based on those numbers, would have been much less of a gamble than the team is taking on the older Strasburg.

The time to resign Rendon was when Harper walked out the door.

But who knows? Maybe somehow the Nationals can pull this off.

If they do, there is a new king of baseball, and it’s not the New York Yankees, the Boston Red Sox or the Los Angeles Dodgers.

⦁ Hear Thom Loverro on 106.7 The Fan Wednesday afternoons and Saturday mornings and on the Kevin Sheehan podcast Tuesdays and Thursdays.

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