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Strasburg returning to Washington Nationals on 7-year deal worth $245 million

Strasburg returning to Washington Nationals on 7-year deal worth $245 million

Stephen Strasburg is coming back.

A simple sentence, but a line of words which means so much for the defending World Series champions, the Washington Nationals. 

Strasburg agreed to a seven-year deal worth $245 million to rejoin one of baseball’s strongest starting staffs months after being named World Series MVP. His return seemed likely though he opted out of the remaining four years and $100 million on his previous contract extension signed in 2016.

Among Strasburg’s biggest numbers in 2019 was 209. His innings total led the National League and registered as the second-highest of his career. His health has been a challenge and concern since the start of his career. He’s made 30 or more starts in just three of his 10 professional seasons. One came last year.

Strasburg also made a notable change last year. His curveball usage spiked to 30.6 percent -- almost 10 percent higher than 2018. His fastball usage declined for the fourth consecutive year. His average fastball velocity declined for the third consecutive year.

Strasburg slots back into the No. 2 spot in the Nationals’ rotation for 2020 and beyond. The first four in the starting group will be the same as the ensemble which led the majors in fWAR among starting pitchers. Max Scherzer, Patrick Corbin and Aníbal Sánchez will pitch around Strasburg. Austin Voth, Joe Ross and Erick Fedde will compete for the fifth spot.

Scherzer, Strasburg and Corbin will pitch together for at least two more years. Scherzer can become a free agent in 2022. 

Retaining Strasburg fills one of the Nationals’ largest holes. The signing is also in line with Mike Rizzo’s core team-building concept: starting pitching over everything.

Paying Strasburg a hefty amount here makes sense. The Nationals will again start with the idea their pitching can be the team’s foundation. The outfield is set. Shortstop and catcher are set. Work around the infield remains. Anthony Rendon is still a free agent. Washington should remain in the mix for his services despite what it paid Strasburg. 

Retaining Strasburg also keeps him from division rivals. Atlanta, New York and Philadelphia -- the latter, in particular -- could use better starting pitchers. Shift Strasburg to Philadelphia’s staff (23rd in fWAR in 2019) and the Phillies suddenly appear much more formidable with Aaron Nola and Strasburg. 

Bringing Strasburg back also provides him an opportunity to further develop his burgeoning legacy in Washington. From being the top pick in 2009 to a World Series champion a decade later, Strasburg now has years to pile on more statistics and a significant chance to become the first homegrown Nationals player to enter the Hall of Fame. At the least, Strasburg, 30, has a clear path to establish himself as the best player in Nationals/Expos history.

He’s ninth in bWAR entering 2020. Ryan Zimmerman is the only Nationals position player ahead of him (37.8 to 33.9) and Scherzer is the only Nationals pitcher ahead of him (36.5 to 33.9). Gary Carter (55.8) is atop the organization’s list. 

Strasburg is under contract well beyond Zimmerman and Scherzer, so he will have every opportunity to pass them. His process to do so resumes in 2020.

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Victor Robles is the X-factor of the Nationals’ lineup

Victor Robles is the X-factor of the Nationals’ lineup

Ever since Anthony Rendon signed a seven-year, $245 million deal with the Los Angeles Angels at the Winter Meetings, the biggest storyline surrounding the Nationals has been who will be replacing him at third base.

That question was seemingly answered Tuesday, when Josh Donaldson inked a four-year deal with the Minnesota Twins and became the last of the all-star-caliber third basemen in free agency to decide which jersey he’ll be wearing in 2020.

While some combination of Asdrúbal Cabrera, Starlin Castro, Howie Kendrick and Carter Kieboom will do well to ensure third base doesn’t become a hole in the lineup, Rendon’s offense won’t be replicated by one single player.

That means the big question isn’t how the Nationals are going to replace Rendon at third base, but how they’ll replace him in the lineup. Juan Soto could continue his ascent from a young star into an MVP-type player, but then who protects him from the cleanup spot?

No, Washington is going to need several hitters to take a step forward if they’re going to replace that lost production. Trea Turner is a logical choice given that he’ll be playing with all 10 fingers instead of nine. Castro altered his swing and saw a significant uptick in his power numbers over the second half of last season. Perhaps Adam Eaton will have a career year as he reaches the end of his prime.

Yet no single improvement would have the potential of impacting the Nationals’ lineup than that of Victor Robles.

The center fielder had a mildly disappointing season at the plate as a rookie, posting just a .745 OPS with 140 strikeouts in 155 games. His defense earned him a spot as a Gold Glove finalist and he stole 28 bases, so his campaign wasn’t a wash by any means. But Robles’ spot in the lineup wasn’t one to be feared by opposing pitchers, and that alone makes his improvement critical to the Nationals’ offense in 2020.

“He’s got power, he got the ability to drive the ball in the gaps, he’s got speed on the basepaths,” Nationals hitting coach Kevin Long said at the team’s annual WinterFest event last weekend. “He can fine-tune some things. I think his strike zone discipline can get better and I think he can learn from what pitchers did to him last year and make those adjustments accordingly.”

Robles met with the media at WinterFest as well, speaking through team interpreter Octavio Martinez. He said being patient at the plate was the most important facet of his game that he hopes to improve this season. The numbers agree, as FanGraphs reports that he swung at 31.9 percent of pitches outside the strike zone last season, about 2 percent above league average.

Changeups in particular were hard for Robles to pick up. Brooks Baseball found that not only was he swinging at changeups more often than any other pitch, he was also whiffing at them 18.8 percent of the time (also his highest rate vs. a single pitch) while only managing to make weak contact even when he did get his bat on the ball.

Robles mentioned that one of his biggest takeaways from last season was recognizing how relaxed his veteran teammates were during their playoff run. It helped him feel more relaxed as well and that’s something he says he expects to continue into this season. That would be important, because a relaxed player would probably be less likely to bite on changeups and wait the extra half-second to recognize the ball is breaking.

By OPS, center field was the Nationals’ second-worst area of production last season ahead of only catcher. And with steady veterans Kurt Suzuki and Yan Gomes returning behind the dish, the pressure will be on Robles to take a step forward.

He doesn’t turn 23 until May, so there’s still plenty of room for Robles to grow. If he can take his 88 OPS+ (a metric that finds he was 12 percent below league average at the plate last season) and turn himself into a solid offensive contributor, it will go a long way in helping the Nationals move forward without Rendon.

“Victor is gonna get better and better,” Long said. “I think he learned a lot last year and I think his future is very bright. He held his own. If you asked him, he’s gonna tell you he can do better and I believe he can and I think we’ll see that.”

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Former Nats pitcher Chad Cordero looks back on the team's early days at RFK

Former Nats pitcher Chad Cordero looks back on the team's early days at RFK

Former Nationals closer Chad Cordero was one of the team's first stars when the franchise moved from Montreal to the nation's capital. Cordero recorded an MLB-best 47 saves and finished fifth in the National League Cy Young voting during the Nationals inaugural season in 2005.

But the closer also remembers the early struggles of the organization. The Nationals spent the first three years in Washington playing in RFK Stadium, the former home of the city's Redskins and the stadium that actually was home to the Senators the last time professional baseball was in D.C.

The first time Cordero played in RFK Stadium is one he'll always remember, and not because of anything that happened on the field.

"Going through those first couple years at RFK, it was hard," Cordero said in an interview with the Nationals Talk podcast. "I remember our first exhibition game against the Mets, I think it was late March and upper 20 [degrees]. We were all excited to warm up, take a nice, hot shower. You go into RFK, the showers are nothing but cold water."

Click below to listen to the full interview on the Nationals Talk podcast.

Yikes.

RFK Stadium was built in 1961, so it was already one of the older stadiums in the league. But that's certainly not getting your season started off on the right foot. 

The organization has made tremendous strides in the decade and a half it's been in Washington, which makes Cordero something he's really proud of.

Since their move to D.C., the Nationals have gone from an annual100-loss team to a perennial World Series contender. After years of heartbreak after heartbreak, the Nationals finally broke through in 2019, earning their first World Series title in team history.

"We had a lot to deal with back in those days, but we were all very happy to be a part of it," Cordero said. "To see it grow, to see the fan base grow, everybody be as welcoming as they have been. To see the Lerner's make that step and go out and get who they need to get to make this ballclub a good team. It makes you very proud. It makes you excited to come back and experience all of that."

Cordero was honored by the Nationals before Game 3 of the World Series, where he threw out to first pitch at the first-ever World Series game at Nationals Park. 

The organization hasn't just changed dramatically since Cordero's playing days in D.C., the area around Nationals Park has gone through a complete makeover as well.

When the stadium opened in 2008, the Navy Yard neighborhood which the ballpark is located in was largely underdeveloped and unknown to many D.C. residents. Now, it's one of the most hopping, hip areas in all of Washington, largely due to the community that has been built around the stadium. While Navy Yard has blossomed, RFK Stadium has been relatively unused and will be torn down in 2021.

"Being one of the original Nationals, we always felt like we helped build it," Cordero said. "It's a huge honor to be able to come back and everything, see how everything's grown. I couldn't have imagined a ballpark this beautiful as this one right here, especially with how much this area has turned around. The restaurants, the condos, everything. It's pretty amazing to see how far this place has come."

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