Stephen Strasburg

Stephen Strasburg got how much? Good thing Phillies signed Zack Wheeler when they did

Stephen Strasburg got how much? Good thing Phillies signed Zack Wheeler when they did

Good thing the Phillies signed Zack Wheeler when they did.

Stephen Strasburg, who entered the offseason as the No. 2 starting pitcher in free agency behind Gerrit Cole and ahead of Wheeler, is returning to the Nationals on a massive seven-year, $245 million contract, according to ESPN's Jeff Passan.

As historically good as Strasburg was in October, that is an insane number for him. He will turn 32 midway through the first of the seven years. He has made 30 starts in just three of nine seasons and reached 200 innings twice. He was more durable than ever in 2019 and, boy, did he cash in because of it. 

Two seasons ago, in 2018, Strasburg made 22 starts with a 3.74 ERA. Had he had that type of season in 2019, he probably wouldn't have even opted out of the remaining three years and $75 million to find this next payday.

Good for him. But also good for the Phillies in agreeing with Wheeler five days before the Nats retained Strasburg. Because if Wheeler was still on the board today, that number is at least $20 million higher and maybe more. Would a team go to $140 million for Wheeler? What about $160 million? Think about how many free agents the White Sox have struck out on in recent years. Wouldn't they have been likely to up their offer one more time if Wheeler was still out there to see what Strasburg signed for?

Strasburg is a great pitcher, don't get it twisted. He proved in 2019 that he can be the most reliable and important arm in the league when the pressure is at its peak. But forget Year 6, by Year 3 or 4 of this deal, the Nationals could be regretting it mightily.

And if this is what it took to sign Strasburg, Gerrit Cole is even more likely to approach $300 million.

There has been much more offseason activity leaguewide than there was at this point a year ago. The five best remaining free agents are Cole, Anthony Rendon, Josh Donaldson, Madison Bumgarner and Hyun-Jin Ryu. The next three would be Nick Castellanos, Didi Gregorius, Marcell Ozuna and then you're getting into back-end-rotation types.

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Phillies free-agent target: Stephen Strasburg

Phillies free-agent target: Stephen Strasburg

Leading up to baseball’s winter meetings, we will take a daily look at some of the game’s top free agents and how they could potentially impact the Phillies.

Today, we check in on someone who has tormented the Phillies for years, power-armed right-hander Stephen Strasburg.

The vitals

Strasburg became a Washington Nationals building block when that team selected him first overall in the 2009 draft. A year later, the Nats picked Bryce Harper No. 1 overall.

Strasburg’s talent has never been in dispute. He complements a power fastball with a killer arsenal of off-speed pitches. His issue has always been staying healthy.

In 2019, however, health was not an issue for Strasburg. He stayed on the field, made 33 starts and led the National League in innings (209) and wins (18). He followed that up with 36⅓ innings, 47 strikeouts (to four walks) and a 1.98 ERA in a postseason run that culminated with the Nationals’ winning the World Series. Strasburg was MVP.

Strasburg’s good health and strong season came at an opportune time as the 31-year-old had the right to opt out of the final four years of his seven-year contract and become a free agent. He walked away from $100 million but will surely cash a larger paycheck as he probably ranks second behind Gerrit Cole among pitchers on this free-agent market.

Why he fits

The Phillies say it's time to win and they're in need of a major upgrade in starting pitching. They need proven help at the back end of the rotation and a major difference maker at the top end. Strasburg would be an excellent addition to the top of the rotation, where he could pair with (and take some pressure off) Aaron Nola. The Phillies have already had contact with Strasburg’s agent, Scott Boras, this offseason. Boras represents several elite free agents, including Cole, and you can be sure the Phils have discussed all of them with him.

And another thing: If you can’t beat him, sign him. Strasburg is 14-2 with a 2.58 ERA and a 0.949 WHIP in 27 career starts against the Phillies. He is also 6-0 with a 2.11 ERA in 12 starts at Citizens Bank Park.

Why he doesn’t fit

Well, there’s the health history. Strasburg had Tommy John surgery early in his career and he’s spent time on the injured list in 2015, 2016, 2017 and 2018 with neck, elbow, back, shoulder and oblique issues. That could give the Phillies some pause — they’ve been burned by injuries to free-agent pitchers in the past — but probably not enough to dissuade them from making a run at Strasburg. The Phils are pretty desperate for pitching and there’s immense pressure on the club to win now. 

Then there’s the matter of the incumbent Washington Nationals, who would like to keep Strasburg. They were already on the hook for four more years and $100 million. They could probably sweeten that by, say, $75 million, and retain the World Series MVP. In fact, with third baseman Anthony Rendon, yet another Boras guy, possibly headed out of the town, the Nats could be under some pressure to do that as they preserve what was the key to their World Series charge — their starting pitching staff.

The price tag

Strasburg was to average $25 million over the next four seasons. He’s coming off a season of health, dominance and a World Series MVP. With so many teams needing elite pitching, a six-year deal worth $180 million could be the ticket.

Scout’s take

“He’s a top of the rotation guy when he’s on the field like he was in 2014 and 2019. In other years, he’s missed a lot of starts with injuries and that has to be a concern as he gets older. But he’s always won games and that’s what it’s all about.”

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Phillies free-agent target: Gerrit Cole

Phillies free-agent target: Gerrit Cole

Leading up to baseball’s winter meetings, we will take a daily look at some of the game’s top free agents and how they could potentially impact the Phillies.

We start with pitcher Gerrit Cole, who is bound to sign a record-setting contract.

The vitals

The powerful 29-year-old right-hander and former No. 1 overall draft pick (by Pittsburgh in 2011) is the unquestioned prize of this winter’s free-agent class. He has built an impressive career resume, especially recently. He is 35-10 with 2.68 ERA and 13.1 strikeouts per nine innings in 65 starts over the last two seasons for the Houston Astros. He is durable and postseason tested. He went 20-5 with an American League-best 2.50 ERA in 33 starts in 2019. He had an 0.895 WHIP and led the majors with 326 strikeouts. For the season, his fastball averaged 97.1 mph, according to Statcast. Only the Mets’ Noah Syndergaard chucked it harder at 98.1 mph. 

Why he fits

Because he’s one of the best pitchers in the game and would immediately make the Phillies better as they try to live up to general manager Matt Klentak’s goal of winning now. Cole would give the Phils an ace who could stand up to Max Scherzer in Washington, Jacob deGrom in New York and the lineup in Atlanta. As an unquestioned No. 1, he’d take pressure off Aaron Nola, who felt some down the stretch in 2019.

Why he doesn’t fit

“If this were major-league Christmas, we would be looking at 30 stockings that clearly wanted a lump of Cole,” agent Scott Boras said of his client as the market opened last week.

The competition for Cole will be intense as teams from the game’s largest markets bid for his services. Cole is from Southern California and word is the Los Angeles Angels are ready to back up the truck for him. The mega-rich New York Yankees also want him. That sets up a nirvana-like situation for Boras, who can play the two markets off each other. The Phillies will be in on Cole — they’ve already touched base with Boras — and they cannot be counted out because they have money and an owner willing to spend. However, given what it might take to sign Cole, the Phillies might be better off spreading their money around and trying to fill multiple holes in the rotation and lineup.

The price tag

Cole is right in the middle of his prime years. There has been speculation that he could fetch $300 million in a long-term deal. He almost surely will eclipse David Price’s $217 million deal with Boston, a record for a pitcher, and could top Justin Verlander’s annual salary of $33 million, also a record for a pitcher. In other words, he’ll be expensive.

Scout’s take

“It took a while, but it looks like he found out how good his stuff is and his success has given him great confidence. He really knows how to utilize that great fastball high in the strike zone.”

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