Nationals

Sure, the Nats could use Rendon, but they need Strasburg too

Nationals
Stephen Strasburg and Anthony Rendon

The Nationals had a choice: Stephen Strasburg or Anthony Rendon.

Two of their biggest stars hit free agency in 2019, only weeks after helping the club to its first World Series title. Strasburg, a three-time All-Star, took World Series MVP honors with a 1.98 ERA in six playoff appearances. Rendon had three top-10 NL MVP finishes to his name and posted a 1.003 OPS throughout the postseason with clutch hits in several elimination games.

Washington only had room in the budget for one of them. Yet, a year and a half later, they’ve gotten production from neither.

Rendon’s bat now belongs to the Los Angeles Angels, with whom he placed 10th in AL MVP voting last season. Strasburg is still in D.C. thanks to the seven-year, $245 million extension he signed that winter. However, he’s made just seven starts since, landing on the injured list three times with three different significant ailments.

“Hopefully, in the not-too-distant future, we get him back in the rotation,” Nationals GM Mike Rizzo said of Strasburg on 106.7 The Fan’s Sports Junkies last week. “He'll be a huge lift for us and he'll be a great deadline acquisition for us if we can get Stras back.”

It’s easy to say the first 18 months of Strasburg’s extension have been a bust considering he hasn’t been able to stay on the field for more than two weeks at a time. It’s also easy to point to the Nationals’ shortcomings on offense over the last two years — particularly at third base — and say they should’ve signed Rendon.

 

But as much as the Nationals’ offense would benefit from Rendon’s bat, their rotation needs a healthy Strasburg back too. Even with Max Scherzer putting on a clinic of how to pitch deep into your 30s, the Nationals have struggled to get consistency out of their starters.

Patrick Corbin and Jon Lester both sport ERAs that begin with five. Erick Fedde was showing signs of breaking out before landing on the COVID IL and suffering an oblique strain. If not for Joe Ross (five quality starts in last six outings) and Davey Martinez’s “secret weapon” Paolo Espino, the Nationals would probably be digging into their Double-A roster for innings.

Despite the lack of consistency, the Nationals actually rank third in the majors with a 3.26 starters ERA since June 1. While that’s an impressive run, they also have a FIP of 4.20 over that span. The difference of nearly a full run between their ERA and FIP represents the largest such disparity in baseball, suggesting pitchers such as Ross and Espino are in for some regression.

Meanwhile, the offense has made significant strides over the last month, posting a .766 OPS since the start of June that ranks second in the NL. The Nationals aren’t going to be a team that homers its way to wins on a consistent basis, but they just saw three members of their lineup named to the NL All-Star team over the weekend. There is potential in a lineup that includes Juan Soto, Trea Turner, Kyle Schwarber and Josh Bell.

Rendon would provide a boost, sure — especially with Schwarber hitting the IL with a hamstring strain last week. But Rendon was placed on the IL himself Tuesday, the third time he's been sidelined this season. He's also on pace for the lowest OPS of his career (.712) with only six home runs in 58 games. Regardless, the Nationals have always touted themselves as a team built around its starters. They’ve made it to the playoffs before with a blend of solid hitting and elite pitching.

At this point, it’s impossible to predict how well Strasburg will pitch when he does return. The right-hander has allowed 17 earned runs in 26 2/3 innings (5.74 ERA) when he has pitched over the last two years, with 15 walks and 23 strikeouts. But the Nationals enter play Tuesday only four games out of the NL East lead. If they have any hope of catching up to the New York Mets and making a deep playoff run, they're going to need Strasburg at his best.

Washington is only two years into Strasburg’s deal. There’s still plenty of time for him to return to form just as there is for Rendon. The club tied its playoff hopes for the foreseeable future to Strasburg with that extension and it’s too early to make a verdict either way. Still, one thing is for certain: The Nationals still need Strasburg, and his ability to pitch at an All-Star level will be one of the biggest factors that determines just how far the 2021 Nationals can go.