All young MLB players give some thought to their first trip into the free agent market. However, not all get the opportunity to both experience it and maximize their earning potential with the contract they eventually sign. Washington Nationals starting pitcher Stephen Strasburg will get to experience what free agency is like, and it appears a perfect storm is brewing for him in a number of ways to get paid even more handsomely than some originally thought.
Since consistently lighting up the radar gun at San Diego State University and then getting selected first overall in the 2009 MLB Draft, there have been lofty expectations on the right-hander. Those expectations intensified when it took him only 20 career minor league starts (90.1 innings pitched) before getting called up to the majors.
As if that wasn’t enough, his MLB debut at home on June 8, 2010 against the Pittsburgh Pirates made everyone giddy about what he could accomplish at the top of Washington’s rotation: seven innings pitched, two earned runs on four hits, no walks and 14 strikeouts.
However, an impressive rookie year ended with him needing Tommy John surgery and missing nearly the entire 2011 season. While he came back with an All-Star campaign in 2012 off the strength of a 15-6 record and 3.16 ERA, he was controversially shut down because of an innings limit, and ended up watching the playoffs instead of pitching in them.
Despite some inconsistencies, the cumulative numbers have always been there for Strasburg – a decent ERA, elite strikeout-to-walk totals and for the most part, victories. Along with having Scott Boras as his agent, there was little doubt a pitcher with this much raw talent and “results” at the big-league level would get a gaudy, nine-figure contract, but would he truly be able to maximize his earning power?
One of the knocks on Strasburg is although he does have the physical capability to be an ace, it hasn’t actually come to pass. He tied for the National League lead in 2014 with 242 strikeouts, but David Schoenfield of ESPN said he still wasn’t yet an ace at that point. When he got off to a terrible start in 2015, John Fisher of ESPN also pointed out several things Strasburg did that aces don’t normally do, including not being able to work around fielding errors committed behind him and becoming more hittable with runners on base.
Those two qualities are the furthest things from what an ace is, as I mentioned after watching Marcus Stroman’s Opening Day start this season. A starting pitcher at the top of his team’s rotation isn’t supposed to let those things happen, but it consistently did to Strasburg. It wouldn’t be surprising if that were part of the reason why Washington went out and signed Max Scherzer to a $210 million deal prior to 2015.
However, with a new manager in Dusty Baker and a new pitching coach in Mike Maddux occupying the Nats’ dugout, the hurler has provided elite production through the season’s first month. The kind of consistent production everyone expected from him before going under the knife.
In 29 innings of work, he’s posted a 3-0 record with a 2.17 ERA, 0.93 WHIP, 31 strikeouts and seven walks. His fastball velocity is still hovering in the mid-90s, but the biggest change in his approach is utilizing his slider considerably more than before (0.5% in ’15 to 14.3% in ’16). Also, as Doug Thorburn of Baseball Prospectus noticed, his delivery has made huge improvements compared to recent years.
The Nationals are off to a much better start than last season, and Strasburg’s dominance has been one of the reasons why (he was 2-2 with a 4.60 ERA in 29.1 innings through the end of April in ‘15). He’s been tough to hit with nobody on base (.528 OPS), but has clamped down even harder with the bases occupied (.465 OPS), which is a telling sight.
As Yogi Berra once famously said, “Baseball is 90% mental. The other half is physical,” and it couldn’t be truer in this case.
Strasburg has always had the physical talent, but having an unflappable attitude and the subsequent production from it has been a driving factor as to why many haven’t considered him as one of baseball’s best starting pitchers. It’s a very small sample size thus far, but it appears he’s starting to figure things out. And it’s coming at the perfect time.
There are four distinct reasons why Strasburg should thank his lucky stars for this all coming together in 2016:
- Next winter’s free agent class is incredibly thin. There could potentially be big names available, like Jose Bautista and Edwin Encarnacion, but the only two starting pitchers in Tim Dierkes’ initial 2017 Free Agent Power Rankings on MLB Trade Rumors were Strasburg and Andrew Cashner.
- As mentioned before, Strasburg’s overall numbers have always been there to justify substantial raises through the arbitration process. If he takes the next step and is also among the league leaders in ERA this season, that will only help further cement his status as next winter’s top starter.
- Zack Greinke received $206.5 million prior to his age-32 season, while David Price earned a $217 million guarantee ahead of his age-30 season. Have they both accomplished more than Strasburg to sign those deals? Absolutely, but Strasburg will only be 28 in 2017, and those two extra seasons “in his prime” are huge.
- Without many top-tier free-agent options at starting pitcher, some teams will look to the trade market in an effort to keep payroll under control, but it comes at a different price. The price of prospects for young, controllable MLB arms was incredible last offseason, and it’ll only get worse, which is something Buster Olney recently mentioned on the Baseball Tonight podcast. That means a bidding war for the best available free-agent pitcher among those who can afford it could be on the horizon.
When factoring in all these things, it’s basically just up to Strasburg to keep producing like he has through his first four starts. As long as he can continue proving his old struggles are a thing of the past, the sky’s the limit when it comes his earning potential. At this point last year, it appeared he would be grossly overpaid upon snagging a deal in excess of $100 million, even though he’d probably get it anyway. But now?
If he can put a career year together – which seems to be in the making – Boras probably won’t have a tough time showing teams why it’d take at least $200 million to lock down this hurler for the long haul.
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