When Kawhi Leonard walked off the Staples Center floor Friday night, a fellow former San Diego State attendee caught his eye.
Stephen Strasburg was sitting courtside near the end of the bench. Leonard stopped for a brief greeting after recognizing him. To Strasburg’s right was a smiling Scott Boras.
The quick exchange sent social media palpitating -- as just about anything does -- because free agent Stephen Strasburg was in Los Angeles with Boras. It also provided a clear reminder of what is at stake with Strasburg and Anthony Rendon. Both could be gone next year, prompting debates about how they will be received when returning to Washington, who was at fault for their departure and what more should have been done.
Let’s assume it happens.
Not because that is the probable outcome -- retaining one of them, probably Strasburg, appears the most likely outcome. But instead because this is a discussion about contingencies. If they both leave, where do the Nationals go?
We know a few things to guide a discussion about what the Nationals could do without two of their most important players:
-- The competitive balance tax threshold moves to $208 million next season and the Nationals reset their penalty clock in 2019 by staying under the $206 million threshold. This provides them wiggle room financially as well as a chance to maintain their usual top-10 spending. Only once in the last five years did the Nationals’ payroll land outside of the top 10. They will spend.
-- Strasburg was set to make $25 million next season. That was on the books. It’s now in hand.
-- A seven-year, $210 million offer to Rendon means a budget with another roughly $30 million (which would be a raise of $12.2 million for Rendon after playing under a significant salary last season provided for goodwill and to avoid arbitration). More money there.
-- The free agent class is not great beyond Gerrit Cole, Strasburg and Rendon.
So, where can the Nationals dump their funds to remain competitive? All the options live with the duality of being flawed but reasonable.
First, to the pitching. Max Scherzer, Patrick Corbin and Aníbal Sánchez remain. The fifth spot will be a toss-up for Austin Voth, Joe Ross and Erick Fedde. Perhaps a veteran is at spring training for a look, too. But, no matter what happens with Strasburg, the other four slots are clear.
Which means Washington is looking for a No. 3 starter, essentially. Hyun-Jin Ryu and Zack Wheeler are the two most compelling options.
Ryu is 33 years old, put together a 2019 that almost doubled his second-best year in production and is a pitcher focused on command.
Wheeler is enticing. And frustrating. He’s 29 years old, but there is not much mileage on his arm since he missed 2016 and 2017 because of a UCL tear (Tommy John surgery) and mild flexor strain during his rehabilitation. Wheeler’s innings pitched have increased each season since he returned to the major leagues: 86 1/3 innings, 182 1/3, 195 1/3. His raw stuff suggests he should be a more dominant pitcher. His 2019 FIP (3.48) suggests he is not there. However, his 2019 fWAR, 4.7, put him eighth in the National League.
Dropoff from there is significant. Only a handful of teams, maybe fewer, can afford to pay Cole, which puts Ryu and Wheeler in spots to create a very competitive market for their services.
Third base is limited. Josh Donaldson is the clear second-best option behind Rendon. He will be in his age-34 season. Mike Moustakas is at least intriguing -- but may be a presence elsewhere on the field for Washington or another team. Moustakas played 44 games at second base last season. The Nationals could opt for him to mix-and-match in the infield. Signing both seems unlikely, though it would be a potent offensive situation. That lineup could look like this (with 2019 fWAR in parentheses):
Trea Turner (3.5)
Adam Eaton (L; 2.3)
Josh Donaldson (4.9)
Juan Soto (L; 4.8)
Ryan Zimmerman (0.1)
Mike Moustakas (L; 2.8)
Victor Robles (2.5)
Kurt Suzuki (0.6)
That lineup does not make up for Rendon’s departure. However, it provides depth, a long line of quality at-bats and flexibility. The challenge is finding money for Donaldson and Moustakas. A wrinkle in all of this: Washington could hand the second base job to Carter Kieboom, making a push for a free agent moot at that position.
So, pull everything together this way: the rotation of Scherzer, Corbin, Wheeler, Sánchez, flavor of the day (Voth appears the front-runner). Donaldson or Moustakas at third base. A veteran second baseman (Starlin Castro, whose BABIP was down 26 points over his career average last season?) to pair with or protect Kieboom.
A full season from Turner would provide more offense. It’s fair to expect an uptick from Robles. Wheeler has potential to be a top-10 pitcher in the National League. Is it Strasburg and Rendon? No. Though it remains a forceful team if a full contingency plan needs to be enacted -- especially if the bullpen is simply league average.
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