Funny how a World Series title can change your perspective.
Before the Washington Nationals embarked on an epic postseason run, fans pulled hair and gnashed teeth fretting about the possible departures of homegrown stars Stephen Strasburg and, more worrisome, Anthony Rendon.
This isn’t to suggest the players’ pending decisions as free agents are no longer a concern around town. It’s just hard to generate the same sense of urgency with the Nationals in possession the Commissioner’s Trophy.
Every front office in baseball is currently going through a familiar process, making moves and plotting strategy that will shape their 2020 roster. It’s nothing new for the Nationals, who also do likewise every year, adding and subtracting faces from the prior season.
Only this time, general manager Mike Rizzo & Co. are atop the only franchise that won its final game and commemorated the achievement with a joyous team snapshot on the field.
That memento ensures missing players will be more noticeable than normal on photo day in spring training.
Given a choice of the Nationals winning the World Series, or retaining Strasburg and Rendon, I’m confident most fans would’ve opted for the former in February when the team reported to West Palm Beach.
But human nature being what it is, greed can ease into equations after the fact.
Now, of course, you want the championship … AND Strasburg … AND Rendon. Why break up a good thing if you don’t have to?
Strasburg was named World Series MVP and Rendon is a finalist for National League MVP. We’ve watched them grow and develop, from rookie seasons to champagne celebrations. Make them Nationals for life, like Ryan Zimmerman (and, prayerfully, Juan Soto)!
Unfortunately, these matters often don’t end in storybook fashion.
Fans, like children making a Christmas list, want numerous presents under the tree. But team owners, like parents, sometimes make decisions that break the kids’ hearts.
Assuming everyone understands that gifts don’t magically appear from the North Pole, parents might force their offspring to rank the wishes. If you can have only one, which one do you want the most?
After begging and pleading for both, after the sniveling ends and the tears have dried, you’re forced to indicate your preference. Who’s it going to be?
Reluctantly, you whisper the answer: “Rendon.”
In real life, you might get both anyway. Or one of them. Or neither.
The Lerners can make offers that, figuratively, can’t be refused, yet Strasburg and Rendon can decline anyway if they’re hellbent on playing elsewhere. Both men could decide that leaving on a winning note is the perfect way to go, a fitting end to this chapter of their careers.
But if they’re both willing to stay for a certain number, and the Lerners can satisfy only one, it’s better to roll with the third baseman instead of the ace starter.
Optics are a huge factor in that reasoning. The Nationals would put themselves in a bad light if they let a homegrown, MVP-caliber, everyday player depart for the second consecutive offseason. While there were sound arguments for allowing Bryce Harper to leave — namely the starting outfield of Soto, Victor Robles and Adam Eaton — there’s no similar rationale in Rendon’s case.
His exodus would create a gaping hole in the lineup and on the field. Suitable in-house replacements are nonexistent. The best free agent at third base, Josh Donaldson, is nearly five years older than Rendon. Failing to re-sign him at market rate, after his outsized role in winning the World Series, would paint the Nationals as cheap and petty.
(On the other hand, never begrudge a player for wanting to go somewhere else when the opportunity arises. That wouldn’t mean something is wrong with D.C.; it would just mean D.C. isn’t his top choice. Maybe Rendon actually prefers his native Texas or laid-back Los Angeles. Can’t blame anyone if that’s the case, assuming the Lerners ultimately match his best offer. And, no, the reported $210 million they put on the table isn’t enough.)
At least the doomsday scenario — both stars having played their final games with Washington — seems unlikely. Financial self-interest, not an interest in moving, drove Strasburg to opt out of his contract. He’s poised to double the $100 million he was owed over four years. We could question his mental acuity if he failed to test the market.
The odds are that Strasburg returns and Rendon leaves. But the Nationals defied odds throughout the 2019 season. We shouldn’t be surprised if they continue into the winter.
If not, oh well.
At least the World Series trophy will be nearby to ease the pain.
⦁ Deron Snyder writes his award-winning column for The Washington Times on Tuesdays and Thursdays.