The Ripple Effects of Stephen Strasburg's Megadeal With Nationals

What does Strasburg's massive new contract with the Nationals mean for the rest of baseball?
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It’s official: Stephen Strasburg and the Nationals have agreed to a $245-million deal over seven years. What does it mean, you may be asking, for the reigning champ to bring back the World Series MVP on the largest contract ever for a pitcher? We’ve got you covered. One question at a time:

Are the Nationals now out on Anthony Rendon?

It would seem so. It had already looked that they would secure one of their two big-ticket free agents, but not both, and Nationals owner Mark Lerner said as much earlier this month: “We really can only afford to have one of those two guys.” (The word “afford” does a lot of work there, of course, but regardless of the financial details underneath, the seemed clear: “We really only want to pay full value for one of those two guys.”) Signing Strasburg—at top-dollar, at that—likely shuts the door on Rendon.

So where is Rendon going?

This should only escalate the rumors about him and the Rangers, where he could return to his home state of Texas, and join a club that seems poised to contend in the next few years. (And a flashy addition for the first year in a new stadium is never a bad thing.) But there’s also the Dodgers—sure, Justin Turner’s here, but this team is nothing if not creative in maximizing positional flexibility—and perhaps even the Braves, if they’re not able to re-sign Josh Donaldson. Or someone else! (The Phillies, post-Maikel Franco-non-tender?) At any rate, there should be a full market for his services, and it shouldn’t be surprising to see him finish with a deal close to Nolan Arenado’s $234-million extension from February.

And what are the Nationals doing about third base?

Chasing Donaldson would seem to be a smart move—a top-shelf talent at the hot corner, but due to his age, he’ll likely be available for less (and less time) than Rendon. The 34-year-old bounced back solidly last year from his prior health woes, and he’s by far the most attractive choice on the market behind Rendon. Other than him, Mike Moustakas is already off the board, which leaves you with… Brock Holt or Todd Frazier. Via trade, however, there may be at least one intriguing possibility: Kris Bryant could be available from the Cubs.

What does this mean for the rest of the pitching market?

First, the Phillies paid up for Zack Wheeler ($118 million, five years). Now the Nationals have set a record with Strasburg. It’s not that this should be wholly surprising: Strasburg, after all, is among the best pitchers of his generation. He’s coming off one of his best seasons—not to mention a brilliant postseason—and he’s posted more than 6 WAR in two of the last three years. There are plenty of reasons to pay him. But $245 million for seven years seems to have exceeded expectations. Look at some of the predictions from earlier this winter: MLB Trade Rumors had him at $180 million for six years, while FanGraphs had $150 million for five years, and their median crowdsourced answer for him was $140 million for four. This is more than what was estimated. (And, yes, a good chunk of it is deferred, but that’s with interest.)

So… what does that mean for the pitching market as a whole, especially alongside the payday for Wheeler? It already seemed possible that Gerrit Cole would become MLB’s first $300-million pitcher; that seems even likelier now. But it could be just as interesting to look at the pitchers behind them. Of course, there’s no one else in remotely the same tier as Strasburg and Cole, and no one else has the same best-of-the-rest line as Wheeler. But then there’s Madison Bumgarner, who has reportedly asked for five years. What about Dallas Keuchel, who settled for a pillow contract last winter (er, summer)? Or Hyun-Jin Ryu, fresh off a career year? It’s impossible to guess. But, so far, the market’s certainly been set higher than predicted, and that should make for a curious next few weeks.

Is the 2020 offseason really different from 2019 and 2018?

Compared to the pace set in the last few winters, 2020’s free agency is moving somewhere between “breakneck” and “warp speed.” It’s just the first day of Winter Meetings, and deals have already been done for Strasburg, Wheeler, Moustakas, Yasmani Grandal, and Will Smith—and all have come in with deals at or above their estimated marks. Has baseball’s economic anxiety from the last two winters disappeared?

…No. There’s nothing different about the game’s foundational financial systems. (And there are certainly reasons to be concerned if you’re a veteran player with a smaller name.) But this market is still moving differently than those of the recent past—whether because it’s driven by pitching, it doesn’t have air sucked out of the room by the Harper-Machado Dual Force, or it just simply is—and, if nothing else, that’s fun to watch.