- The Washington Times - Tuesday, December 17, 2019

There were times in recent weeks when Stephen Strasburg’s mind wandered. As a free agent, the 31-year-old pitcher played the “what if” game. He wondered what it would be like to sign with a different team, what it would be like to live in a new city.

In the end, that was all just part of the journey — a relatively short one, as it turned out — that brought him back home to the District.

“Luckily, (free agency) didn’t last as long as other people,” the Washington Nationals ace and World Series MVP said Tuesday.

Strasburg, who re-upped for seven years and $245 million with the Nationals last week, took just 36 days from the time he opted out of his previous contract to the moment when he agreed to a new deal at the start of MLB’s annual Winter Meetings. By comparison, just a year ago, Bryce Harper’s free agency lasted almost four months.

On Tuesday, Strasburg declared he was excited to be a “National for life,” a phrase uttered several times throughout a 20-minute press conference at Nationals Park.

The same, however, can’t be said for Anthony Rendon, the Nationals’ former star third baseman who signed a seven-year, $245 million deal with the Los Angeles Angels last week. Rendon’s departure was largely expected, given owner Mark Lerner said an interview the Nationals would essentially be picking between the two stars before Strasburg signed his deal.

For the second year in a row, the Nationals prioritized starting pitching over hitting.

By signing Patrick Corbin last year and re-signing Strasburg this year, Washington said goodbye to two of its best home-grown hitters — Harper and Rendon — and instead will rely on the strength of its rotation to win ballgames.

It’s a strategy that’s already worked once — the Nationals won the World Series, after all, in part because of their pitching — and a core philosophy in general manager Mike Rizzo’s approach to team-building. Washington’s starting rotation had the league’s second-best ERA last season (3.53) and continued to dominate in the playoffs. Strasburg, for instance, became the first pitcher ever to go 5-0 in the postseason.

Discussing Rendon’s exit, Rizzo said Tuesday there are “different ways” to build a roster.

Though the Nationals have not yet found their replacement at third base, Rizzo said he’s continuing to explore free-agent options (Josh Donaldson), the trade market and minor-league talent already in the organization (Carter Kieboom).

“These guys earned the right to become free agents, to examine the market and see what the market will bear,” Rizzo said. “We felt that this was a market-value deal for (Strasburg). The elite starting pitchers obviously we’ve seen make this type of money.”

From a pure production standpoint, the Nationals will have to replace a hitter who batted .319 with 34 home runs and a league-leading 124 RBIs in 2019. It’s not a simple task, and one Rizzo knows can’t be replicated with just one player. “He’s a guy that we love,” Rizzo said last week.

At Tuesday’s press conference, Strasburg said he tried to talk Rendon into staying with the World Series champs. But in the end, Strasburg said he wanted what was best for his former teammate, adding that he was happy for him.

For Strasburg, the District is where he wanted to be. Since being drafted in 2009, he’s started a family, and his oldest daughter is now in school. He’s built close connections with his teammates, and even ace Max Scherzer was in attendance for his press conference.

Strasburg also said he trusts the organization is “committed to winning,” so they can pick up where they left off.

“It’s funny, you go win the World Series and everybody starts to write you off for next year, so I think that’s pouring gas on the fire for me and I think for a lot of other guys,” Strasburg said. “There’s no stopping us now.”

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