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Yes, Strasburg can opt out. But he won’t

Yes, Strasburg can opt out. But he won’t

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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Nationals owner Mark Lerner says team can’t afford Stephen Strasburg and Anthony Rendon

Nationals owner Mark Lerner says team can’t afford Stephen Strasburg and Anthony Rendon

The prime question as soon as Stephen Strasburg opted out of his contract was this: Could the Nationals afford to bring back Strasburg and Anthony Rendon? According to managing principal owner Mark Lerner, the answer is no. 

“We really can only afford to have one of those two guys,” Lerner told Donald Dell in an exclusive interview. “They’re huge numbers. We already have a really large payroll to begin with.”

Lerner’s public stance suggesting Strasburg and Rendon is an either-or proposition for the defending World Series champions is new. Is it surprising? Not necessarily. Lerner could flatly state the organization is going to find a way to pay both. However, that’s poor negotiating. Being in between serves multiple needs: It keeps the door open on each player; it stirs the market without roiling it; it prepares fans for an outcome they don’t prefer.

Lerner has not hesitated to comment on pending and enormous free agent situations since becoming the more outward face of the team’s ownership group. His father, founding principal owner Ted Lerner, has stepped back, though remains the patriarchal voice on large expenditures. Here, like last year, Mark Lerner has answered early December questions about free agency with eyebrow-raising candor. His declaration about Strasburg and Rendon comes almost a year-to-the-day after he said about Bryce Harper, “I don’t really expect him to come back at this point. I think they’ve decided to move on.”

An owner talking with a blend of tactfulness and openness -- when asked a direct question by an interviewer -- drew irritation from Harper’s agent, Scott Boras. Boras also represents Rendon and Strasburg. Hearing an owner speak in a way which counters possible price increases by reducing prospective market competition won’t make any agent happy. It happened here.

So, is there a path for the Nationals to pay both players? Of course. But, it’s a matter of how. In Lerner’s view, whether both players return is up to them, not the organization.

“We’re pursuing them, we’re pursuing other free agents in case they decided to go elsewhere,” Lerner said in the interview with Dell. “Again, it’s not up to us. We can give them a great offer -- which we’ve done to both of those players. They’re great people. We’d be delighted if they stay. But it’s not up to us, it’s up to them. That’s why they call it free agency.”

Important to note: Lerner said the organization cannot afford both, then said it’s up to the players -- not ownership -- whether the players return. The suggestion is if they take lower deals, which both sides know they won’t, they could come back, which in fact would make the players solely responsible for deciding the process. That’s now how free agency works, which everyone involved here understands. 

Lerner could process the offseason in Steinbrennerian fashion. Pay, pay, pay. He won’t. It’s not how the family runs the team. They operate more as well-heeled pragmatists. 

Payroll is consistently high. Washington has been in the top seven four of the last five seasons. Twice, it has reached the No. 5 spot in team payroll. The Nationals gave Max Scherzer the years and total other teams would not. The same happened for Patrick Corbin last offseason.

However, the team also took extensive measures to dip back under the competitive balance tax threshold in 2019 in order to avoid financial and draft pick penalties. It is also already driving down next season’s payroll by renegotiating with Yan Gomes (declined $9 million option; re-signed for two years and $10 million) and reworking Ryan Zimmerman’s contract (declined $18 million option; likely re-signing for around a third of that).

Costs outside of the two big-ticket items of third base and an upper-tier starter should be moderate. The bullpen needs help. Relievers are not bank-breakers. Second base could well consist of a veteran and rookie Carter Kieboom. Those spots influence the immediate math and save money.

Looming are the contracts of Trea Turner (free agent in 2023; also receiving a raise this season), Juan Soto and Victor Robles (free agents in 2025). Though that trio is egregiously outperforming their contracts while wading through MLB’s oppressive early career salary scale, which means opportunity exists now to spend because of emphatic savings via those three players.

Lerner also suggested the free agency process is generally misunderstood outside of baseball circles.

“They think you’re really back there printing money and it’s whoever goes to the highest bidder,” Lerner said. “It’s not that way at all. You give these fellas -- there’s a negotiation that goes on, but...We’ve been pretty successful in free agency over time. You’re not going to get everybody. Certain players may want to go home, closer to where their home is. You never know the reason why people move on. But, we’ve been very successful. Probably one of the most successful teams in free agency the last 10 years. We’re very proud of our record. But, again, I think people have to realize, it’s not all up to us.” 

It nearly can be. The money can be level or more. A public emphasis could be put on the organization’s desperation to bring back two homegrown, upper-tier players at distinct positions of need. No, teams can’t control everything with just cash (as Zack Wheeler recently demonstrated by taking less money to sign with Philadelphia). However, if the organization contends it owns the environmental tiebreakers -- which is a stance the Nationals hold with both players -- then it does become a matter of money and whether it’s found. In this case, the owner says it won’t be. 

See more of the interview on the next episode of The Donald Dell Interview, which debuts December 17 at 7 PM on NBC Sports Washington.
 

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Anthony Rendon's best options and the chances he returns to the Nationals

Anthony Rendon's best options and the chances he returns to the Nationals

Discussions and speculation surrounding how the Nationals will look on Opening Day of their first World Series title defense begin and end with free agents Stephen Strasburg and Anthony Rendon. 

Considered two of the top three players available along with Astros pitcher Gerrit Cole, Rendon and Strasburg will both command massive paydays wherever they decide to sign. 

To this point, reports have suggested a marriage between Strasburg and the Nationals could happen as soon as the start of the winter meetings. 

But what about Rendon? Jesse Daugherty of the Washington Post and Jamal Collier of MLB.com joined Todd Dybas on the Nationals Talk Podcast to break down his best options and the level of interest he could have in returning to DC. 

"I think the one most intriguing option for me that seems to make sense is that Justin Turner has said he'll move off third [base] for LA [Dodgers] and the Dodgers are known to offer low-year, high AAV deals which is something that probably seems attractive to Rendon, who has told us many a time he'd like to retire by 35," Daugherty said. 

If we can take Rendon's word on retiring at 35, this contract may be his last. One major hurdle for him could be the depth at third base across the league, especially on contending teams. 

"Most teams don't need [a third baseman]," Daugherty said. "The Phillies need one, the Braves need one, I guess the Dodgers need one if Turner's willing to move, but [the third base market] really is hard for me to gauge."

Meanwhile, Collier speculates that a natural fit for Rendon would be his home-town team. 

"A team that potentially could be a player for Rendon and one that makes a lot of sense is Texas [Rangers]," Collier said. "Obviously the home state, coming into a new ballpark, they should have money to spend, and I think it's a place that he would want to play at."

Every player wants to get paid, but there are often intangible factors that convince them to take a discount. Whether it's comfortability, saving your owner money to keep a contender together or playing close to home, not every player is won over by a huge contract offer. 

While that may be the case with Strasburg, it doesn't appear Rendon puts as much stock in those things. 

"All those things we said about Strasburg in the comfort and the idea that he likes it [in Washington], I think those things are also true for Rendon," Collier said. "I think if all things were equal, I think the Nats would hold some sort of tiebreaker over most teams. The comfort of DC is probably in his factors but probably won't weigh as heavily as it will with Strasburg. 

"The money has to be equal if the Nats are going to be there," Collier said. 

So no matter how much the Nationals may want to bring both Rendon and Strasburg back for a team-friendly price, they'll have to play by the same rules as everyone else. 

If they don't want to pay up for Rendon, their options to replace him are notably slim. 

"Someone is going to throw a lot of money to Rendon," Collier said. "He’s been a 5, 6 win player per season and probably will be for the next few years. One of the best players in baseball is going to get some play, but not sure where."

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