Here’s what we know about Stephen Strasburg’s future in Washington: He has the ability to opt-out of his $175 million contract extension kicks in at the end of this season. The original deal, signed in 2016, was eye-popping because of the then-lucrative free agent climate and the contract’s design. Strasburg was locked in to just four seasons. He received four opt-outs. The structure was abnormal.
There are a few things the deal means – but one of those is not that he’ll opt-out at the end of this season.
What the deal did signal was Strasburg’s interest in Washington. The city has developed into a primary home, one in which he now spends his winters despite his prior affiliation with, and the offseason allure of, San Diego. Strasburg was in the District all of last offseason in order to workout at the stadium. He came to Patrick Corbin’s press conference. He was generally around, no longer running the beaches in California.
Strasburg is having an excellent season. He’s healthy, for once, which means he is producing and of course will look at his future. He’s already at 5.4 WAR, which makes this the second-best season of his career, trailing only 2017 when he was a Cy Young finalist for the first time. Max Scherzer’s injury has even prompted discussion about who may start a wild-card game should the Nationals enter one Oct. 1.
Combine the contract with health and accompanying results and it is technically a possibility – as one report said on Thursday – that he could opt-out. Of course Strasburg and agent Scott Boras will review their options when the season ends. It’s his first year with an opt-out choice. To not look the market over would be preposterous, short-sighted and malpractice.
Based on prior conversations with Strasburg, San Diego has nothing to do with how he assesses his future. Placing that as a factor in Strasburg’s future is mundane work.
Which leaves the contract. Strasburg has four years, $100 million remaining. His massive final year -- $45 million base salary in 2023 when he is 34 years old -- was a pushback on risk by the organization. They gave opt-outs to extend him. They put up a big number at the end to counter the desire of those opt-outs (and soften the impact of deferred money, which, of course, is part of this deal).
In 2016, Strasburg’s contract stunned the industry because he appeared to have left a large chunk of money on the table. There was a viable argument at the time, and it still is in play now, as to why he chose to stay in Washington: It afforded him to be paid like a No. 1 starter without having to deal with the trappings of a marquee. Scherzer is the head of the rotation. Strasburg is able to go about his business with a hefty salary and low tolerance for the spotlight -- see his common use of the word “comfortable.” He’s inherently shy (fact, not criticism) and a slot behind the boisterous Scherzer on a winning team is a perfect fit.
So, the money and circumstances were right. He agreed to an in-season extension. The free agent market remained a bubbly area at the time, which is why his extension was viewed with questions. That’s no longer the case.
Free agency has pivoted more toward plague status than holy ground. Here’s Scherzer on the situation last September, before Manny Machado and Bryce Harper twisted for months:
“Free agency is weird, and it’s only gotten weirder,” Scherzer told NBC Sports Washington. “We used to see teams covet guys who had demonstrated they can play in the league for X amount of years and produce. Now all we hear about [with] every free agent... every team tries to tear him down and say he’s the worst player ever and can’t do it anymore.
“They’re trying to do everything they can to affect free agency, which has been our golden egg for so long.”
This is the acidic situation in free agency. It’s why a slew of extensions were signed around spring training (making Strasburg seem prescient, in fact).
Would Strasburg be paid if he opts out? Yes, eventually. Though, to Scherzer’s point, the central discussion would be about giving a 30-year-old pitcher with an extensive injury history a six- to eight-year deal. Length would be necessary because why would he otherwise leave four years -- three with flexibility -- behind? Would Strasburg want to opt-out so he can go rescue a flailing or developing franchise, be the lead of the marketing machine or worry about his personal brand? No.
That steers this discussion to the two most likely scenarios: he starts next season with a $25 million base salary under the current contract terms, retaining cash, culture, and flexibility. Or, he works with Washington for tack-on years, the way Clayton Kershaw managed his contract with Los Angeles, though the organization would need heavy convincing for that.
But no need to throw out those Strasburg jerseys yet.
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