- The Washington Times - Monday, December 9, 2019

When Stephen Strasburg greeted euphoric Washington Nationals fans from the balcony of the White House last month, overlooking the thousands gathered below on the South Lawn, the crowd wooed the World Series MVP with a chant: “Four more years!” “Four more years!”

On Monday, fans got their wish — with a few extra years to boot — when the 31-year-old ace agreed to a new seven-year, $245 million deal with the Nationals. The contract. which reportedly contains no opt-outs, makes Strasburg the highest-paid pitcher in baseball — at least for now (free agent Gerrit Cole, in line for an even richer deal, is still on the market).

“We would not have won the 2019 World Series or accomplished everything we have these last 10 seasons if not for Stephen’s many contributions,” Nationals owner Mark Lerner said in a statement.

The Nationals’ offer was enough to entice Strasburg to stay with the team that drafted him first overall 10 years ago.

In the decade since, Strasburg and the Nationals have gone through highs and lows — successes and failures tied each to the other. This fall, the team earned its first World Series championship, thanks in large part to dominant playoff performances from Strasburg, who became the first pitcher ever to go 5-0 in the postseason.

The agreement was reached on the first day of MLB’s Winter Meetings in San Diego, Strasburg’s hometown.

“I must say that for Stephen, for him to establish a legacy and wear the curly W for his career was something that was very important to him,” said Scott Boras, Strasburg’s agent, at a press conference, “and I think it was because he knew that people in this organization cared deeply about him and always cared about his interests and the interests of his family, and because of that, he decided to stay at home and stay in one uniform and remain a Washington National for the remainder of his career.”

By re-signing Strasburg, however, the Nationals ultimately appeared to make a decision regarding another one of their premier free agents. Third baseman Anthony Rendon is now expected to sign elsewhere.

Lerner said in an interview last week his team could “only afford” to sign either Strasburg or Rendon, but not both. Lerner cited the team’s high payroll — $185 million, fifth in the league — and the “huge numbers” each player would command in free agency as reasons the Nationals could not re-up both.

Asked about Rendon, general manager Mike Rizzo said Monday the Nationals’ ownership group “has never shied away from putting the resources together to field a championship-caliber club.” Rizzo said he was unaware of Lerner’s recent comments, but didn’t dismiss the idea of still pursuing Rendon.

“I think that Mark realizes that there’s ways to fit players in, 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 said.

The Nationals faced the decision when Strasburg officially opted out of the remainder of his deal days after Washington won the World Series. The pitcher chose to forgo the four years, $100 million left on the contract.

For Strasburg, the move turned out to be worth it. With a $35 million per year average salary, Strasburg surpasses Boston’s David Price and Houston’s Zack Grienke as the top earning pitcher in the major leagues. The deal also puts Strasburg ahead of Nationals teammate Max Scherzer, who signed a seven-year, $210 million contract in 2015.

Scherzer’s deal, notably, contained deferrals — a clause that was an issue for former Nationals star Bryce Harper before he signed a 13-year, $330 million with the Philadelphia Phillies last year. Strasburg’s contract, meanwhile, will have $80 million in deferrals, according to multiple reports.

Strasburg, too, will receive a full no-trade clause, something Scherzer does not have in his deal.

The Nationals now have $604 million committed to their starting rotation, a payroll that reflects Rizzo’s philosophy. Since taking over in 2009, the general manager has stressed the importance of building a team on the strength of its starting pitching.

Strasburg will rejoin a rotation that includes Scherzer, Patrick Corbin and Anibal Sanchez, a group that helped the Nationals overcome their bullpen deficiencies in the postseason.

“It’s always been a part of my DNA as an executive,” Rizzo said in October. “I was lucky enough in 2001 to win a World Series with the Arizona Diamondbacks. We had the same formula over there … We went after Curt Schilling and Randy Johnson and we really loaded up on good starting pitching. … That was kind of my foundation on how to build a championship-caliber club, and it’s kind of stayed with me since then.”

The Nationals re-signing Strasburg reinforces that belief. In 2019, the ace enjoyed a career year, going 18-6 with a 3.32 ERA. Strasburg was able to stay healthy — leading the league with 209 innings pitched. Earlier in his career, Strasburg was often sidelined by various injuries, including an injury that caused him to undergo elbow reconstruction surgery in 2010.

By agreeing to a deal on Monday, Strasburg ended his free agency relatively quickly. Over the last few years, negotiations between star players and teams dragged on for months — with players even floating the idea owners were colluding to suppress salaries, while MLB commissioner Rob Manfred suggested it was agents slowing down the process. Harper and Manny Machado, for instance, did not sign their deals until late February.

Despite being one of the top pitchers on the market, Strasburg didn’t wait long. He and agent Scott Boras met with teams such as the Los Angeles Dodgers and the New York Yankees before circling back to the Nationals.

Boras said the Nationals’ history with Strasburg helped facilitate the deal.

“In Stephen’s case and in the Nationals’ case, they have this bridge of trust and understanding that was based from long ago, and they reached a point of fairness,” Boras said. “Stephen also made sure that he wanted to do something in this contract that allowed the team to sign the best players and to have the best teams, and he did that. So the mutuality, the intentions were there, so that allowed us to reach a deal rather quickly.”

• Matthew Paras can be reached at mparas@washingtontimes.com.

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