MLB Free Agent Stock Watch: Nationals' Stephen Strasburg looking more and more likely to opt out
Strasburg would walk away from four years and $100 million
There are two weeks and three days remaining in the 2019 regular season. Those two weeks and three days will decide the various postseason and awards races, then it'll be on to the postseason to crown a World Series champion. After that, MLB will jump right into the offseason and what could be another slow-moving free agent market.
. In this week's Free Agent Stock Watch we're going to break down a high-profile starting pitcher who could -- could -- jump into the free agent mix this winter, as well as two veteran journeymen who have seen their free agent stock dip recently.
Maybe I'm wrong, but it seems the general perception among casual baseball fans is that Nationals right-hander Stephen Strasburg has not lived up to the hype. He was arguably the greatest pitching prospect in draft history coming out of San Diego State in 2009, and he was billed as an instant ace in the minors. The hype was inescapable.
Injuries have dogged Strasburg throughout his career, including Tommy John surgery and various other elbow ailments, but he has never not been excellent when on the mound. Going into Wednesday night's start, Strasburg owned a career 3.19 ERA in over 1,400 innings -- that is 29 percent better than league average once adjusted for ballpark -- and a stellar 2.95 FIP.
Since Strasburg debuted in 2010, 88 pitchers have thrown at least 1,000 big league innings. Here are his ranks:
- ERA: 3.19 (9th)
- ERA+: 129 (8th)
- FIP: 2.95 (4th)
- K rate: 29.1 percent (4th)
- K/BB: 4.53 (6th)
- WAR: 31.6 (12th)
Strasburg is 12th in WAR despite being 30th in innings pitched since 2010. The injuries have been a problem, no doubt, but Strasburg has been a top-10 pitcher in baseball since his debut. Whether that's enough to say he's lived up to the hype, I don't know. All I know is Strasburg has been excellent throughout his MLB career.
Strasburg turned 31 in July and he is having another marvelous season. He's stayed healthy and thrown the second most innings in a single season in his career, and he's continued to rack up strikeouts and generate weak contact. The fastball may not pop 100 mph anymore -- Strasburg's heater has averaged 93.9 mph this year -- but he ranks among the best in baseball in strikeout rate and hard-hit rate.
The Nationals gave Strasburg a seven-year, $175 million extension back in May 2016 and thus far it has been money well spent. This contract includes heavy deferrals -- $30 million of his $35 million salary this year is deferred -- as is often the case with big Nationals contracts, and this winter Strasburg can opt out and become a free agent. Here's what's left on the deal:
- 2020: $25 million ($10 million deferred)
- 2021: $15 million
- 2022: $15 million
- 2023: $45 million ($30 million deferred)
That's four years and $100 million with $40 million deferred until 2027-30. The key number is $100 million. To come out ahead with the opt-out, Strasburg and agent Scott Boras have have to get more than $100 million guaranteed on his next contract, no matter how many years. A five-year deal worth $110 million would be a win.
Strasburg will be 35 when his current contract expires. MLB teams are shying away from older players these days and his injury history -- plus the inherent injury risk that applies to all pitchers -- suggests Strasburg won't get a huge contract four years down the line. Using the opt-out clause now is probably his last chance at securing a significant payday.
The upcoming free agent class is headlined by Gerrit Cole, one of the top two or three pitchers in the game. After Cole, there's a bit of a drop off to the next tier of free agent starters (Madison Bumgarner, Zack Wheeler, etc.). Strasburg would become the clear No. 2 free agent starter this winter should he opt out, and look at all the deep-pocketed teams that could pursue him:
- Angels: It's time to get Mike Trout some help, plus Strasburg would get to go home to SoCal.
- Astros: They could replace Cole with the (slightly) cheaper but still excellent Strasburg.
- Braves: Strasburg going to an NL East rival would be a double whammy for the Nationals.
- Cardinals: St. Louis will need someone to replace Michael Wacha (and Adam Wainwright?)
- Cubs: They have a ton of money committing to pitching already, but they still need more.
- Padres: San Diego has been seeking an ace for a while now. Why not bring Strasburg home?
- Phillies: The Phillies clearly need another top starter. Also, see the Braves comment.
- Rangers: Expect an active offseason with Texas set to open a new ballpark in 2020.
- Red Sox: A new stud starter would ease the pain after a very disappointing season.
- Yankees: Cole figures to be their Plan A. Strasburg would be a great Plan B though.
Smaller market contenders like the Brewers and Twins could get involved, plus I'd never rule out the Dodgers despite their rotation depth and sudden adherence to the luxury tax. You can't rule out a mystery team jumping into the mix either. Who had the Padres signing Manny Machado? Exactly. Maybe the Athletics, Mets, Reds, or Rockies jump into the mix.
Strasburg is a very different situation than J.D. Martinez. Martinez is great, don't get me wrong, but he is a 32-year-old DH who's market will be limited to the 15 AL teams,. Every single team needs pitching though. Contenders in both leagues will be after Strasburg, as will bubble teams looking to get over the hump. His market figures to be robust.
There have been four $100 million contracts signed by pitchers since November 2016. Here is the side-by-side comparison:
|Age at Contract||Platform Year WAR||Career WAR||Contract|
6 yrs, $140M ($23.3M AAV)
6 yrs, $126M ($21M AAV)
4 yrs, $120.5M ($30.125M AAV)
5 yrs, $145M ($29M AAV)
Corbin and Darvish signed their contracts as free agents. deGrom signed his two years before qualifying for free agency and Sale one year before free agency, so comparing them to Strasburg is not apples to apples. Their leverage was limited (and they still did quiet well for themselves). Also Sale is the only one of those five pitchers without Tommy John surgery in his history.
DeGrom is an outlier in this group because he signed his extension two years before free agency and was coming off a Cy Young and a truly historic season. Remove deGrom and rank the remaining pitchers, and Strasburg slots in neatly behind Sale but ahead of Darvish and Corbin, putting his projected contract at $25 million per season, give or take. And guess what? The remainder of Strasburg's contract is worth $25 million annually.
My hunch is Strasburg and Boras would focus on adding years rather than upping the average annual value. Heck, they might even be willing to take less money annually as long as the extra years create a larger guarantee. Something like six years and $130 million ($21.6 million per year) could work. Slightly lower annual salary, but more guaranteed money overall.
Keep in mind Strasburg's contract includes an opt-out for next winter. He could stick with the Nationals next year then re-evaluate things. Another strong and healthy season would put him in position to cash in even more a year from now, though he will be one year older. If Strasburg and Boras are worried about the market, they can fall back on trying again next year.
The Nationals have to re-sign Anthony Rendon this winter and Strasburg and Boras opting out -- or even trying to leverage the opt-out clause into an extension -- could really complicate things for the team. They have to sign Rendon, lock up Juan Soto and Trea Turner in the near future, rebuild their bullpen, and figure out a way to keep their rotation together. That'll make for a busy winter.
Walking away from $100 million to test free agency in this climate is a risky proposition, but Strasburg has banked over $110 million in his career to date, so he is better positioned to roll the dice than most. Given his excellent season and the dearth of high-end free agents behind Cole, Strasburg using his opt-out is looking more and more likely. I wouldn't call it a lock, but it is now very possible.
Free agency has not been kind to catcher Jonathan Lucroy and it's hard to see it getting any better this winter. Lucroy signed a one-year deal worth $6.5 million with the Athletics last year and a one-year deal worth $3.35 million with the Angels this year. Anaheim released him last month and he quickly caught on the Cubs, where he hasn't performed all that well.
Once upon a time the 33-year-old Lucroy was one of the game's best all-around catchers. The fall from grace has been swift:
Lucroy's offense is well-below-average, even relative to other catchers, and his exit velocity and hard-hit rates are among the worst in baseball, so you can't even squint your eyes and hope for a rebound. Furthermore, Lucroy rates poorly as a pitch-framer and it's been four years since he was even league average at throwing out base stealers. There are few redeeming qualities here.
After settling for small one-year contracts the past two offseasons, Lucroy this winter might be headed for a minor-league contract with a chance to win a backup job in spring training. He still has enough name value that a guaranteed one-year deal is not out of the question, but teams are increasingly ruthless with their player evaluations, and a minor-league deal is more likely. As crazy as it sounds, spring training might be Lucroy's last chance to prove he belongs on an MLB roster.
Three months into the season Giants lefty Tony Watson appeared to be on track to test free agency and land a nice little payday in a market that is still kind to relievers. Fast forward to mid September, and Watson's performance has slipped, and he recently suffered a small fracture in his left wrist making a diving tag at first base. Here's the play:
Watson will miss at least 10 days and his season may be over. A disappointing end to a season that started very promising before crashing in July, August, and now September.
The good news is Watson has a fallback plan. His contract includes a $2.5 million player option for 2020, so he can pick that up and sleep well knowing he has a job lined up for next season. Declining the option and testing free agency is still a distinct possibility. Consider some of the lower profile relief contracts signed last winter:
- RHP Jesse Chavez: 2 years, $8 million
- LHP Justin Wilson: 2 years, $10 million
- RHP Brad Brach: 1 years, $3 million
It's not a stretch to say a veteran southpaw like Watson could beat $2.5 million in free agency, even after an overall disappointing year and the wrist injury. Tax implications usually get overplayed in free agency, but, in this case, escaping California's tax rates could make a big difference. It could lead to Watson pursuing a deal elsewhere.
One thing to keep in mind: MLB is adopting the three-batter minimum rule next season. Watson is not a pure left-on-left reliever, he can hold his own against righties, but the rule change might impact his market. Clubs that are concerned about his ability to get out righties going forward might steer clear.
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