The Stephen Strasburg signing has brought me a level of pure joy that I largely no longer expect from sports, at least the business side of sports, which seems largely governed by self-serving press statements and Twitter fodder. So rarely do deals like this happen: the player with special significance to the club gets paid like the special-but-risky that talent that he is; the fanbase gets to cheer for a home-grown star for years to come; and the team gets a big but budget-smart deal.
It says to me that my team is serious about being good for years on end, not just one or three seasons; and it does make me wonder whether the club will go “all-in” for Bryce Harper.
Who knows? What I do know, is that it’s fun.
It’s fun to have a team that makes bold moves in the name of getting better. As a former Expos fan, I recall watching talent – Pedro Martinez, Vladimir Guerrero and the like – and wondering not if but when they would leave. To support a club that can and will muster the resources in this way is a fantastic break from that past.
Watching Strasburg evolve over the years has been a real mix of results and emotions. As the 2009 first-overall draft pick, he was “supposed” to be an unreal talent. He was “supposed” to save the franchise. He’s always had the raw ability and he’s often flashed that ability in stretches, yet there’s always been some “but he should be better” cloud looming over him. And then there was the infamous shut-down, and the relentless back-and-forth over whether the Nationals had blown it, and the infamous 2012 National League Division Series, where Strasburg sat idly by as the club imploded – so many what-ifs and incomplete sentences for both the player and the club.
It’s easy to forget how much of his learning curve has happened on the biggest and brightest stage, on terrible or mediocre Nationals teams. He’s has been in the big leagues since 2010, when he was 21. Noah Syndergaard, by comparison, is 24. Jacob DeGrom is 27. Now, at 27 himself, Stras really seems to be putting everything together – and that means the Nationals have likely secured the best years of his career for themselves.
Take Monday’s start against Detroit: an off night for Stras, he left a few pitches up and the ever-powerful Tigers hit them hard. But in the end, he thew seven innings of six-hit, three-walk, 11-strikeout ball, yielding four runs. In other words, he served up an entirely winnable game – and indeed, the Nationals did win. Strasburg’s ceiling has always been high; now his floor, his off-days, are good, solid, winnable efforts, too. He’s bringing stability and efficiency into his arsenal along with the high-90s heat and the devastating change-up, and the new slider.
It’s quite clear: as a matter of the eye-test and analytics – that Strasburg the pitcher is no less than a capital-A Ace. At his best, he’s basically unhittable; facing Stras is like facing the game’s best closers, seven innings at a time. At his worst, like Monday’s ugly win over Detroit, he’s still better than the best efforts from most big leaguers. His ceiling is extremely high but his floor has gotten much higher, too.
Will his elbow hold up? Who knows, but pitcher health seems like a crapshoot to begin with and if anyone is capable of taking care of Strasburg, it would be the Nats. It sure seems like he loves the team and the city.
And now we fans, who have always wanted “more” from Strasburg, are getting it. We’re getting the complete package: a shut-down, overpowering pitcher, a quiet, polite, thoughtful and intensely competitive person. We should simply enjoy being present for however many dominant innings of baseball he’s got left in that incredible right arm of his.
From a macro, strategic view, re-signing Strasburg accomplished four other positives for the club:
• It gives the Nats an army of outstanding starting pitchers for the foreseeable future: Strasburg, Max Scherzer, Joe Ross, Gio Gonzalez and Tanner Roark.
• The move relieves some pressure on the development of prospects Lucas Giolito, Austin Voth, Reynaldo Lopez and Erick Fedde. In other words, they won’t be “needed” next year or even necessarily the year after. If they’re ready, all the better – but the club can wait.
• It also means that one or several of these prized pitching prospects could be freed up in a trade or trades.
• The move puts pressure on the Mets to figure out which of their pitchers they can afford to extend or let walk. It is also a signal to Philadelphia and Atlanta: the move says that as well as their respective rebuilding projects are going – and they are going well, particularly in Philadelphia’s case – the Nationals are not going anywhere.
• The move shows everyone that the Nationals are really serious about being good for a long time, like the Chicago Cubs will be and like San Francisco and St. Louis are.
• The move shows that the entire system Rizzo has put in place is really working: the club can find talent through the fundamental methods of scouting and drafting and developing in the farm system, and the club is also unafraid to flat-out spend money on free agents and talent in their walk years.
The Strasburg deal is a great business deal for all parties involved, and a beautiful moment for Washington baseball.