The Washington Nationals roll into the 2016 season focused on a single question: Can they zap the memory of last year's embarrassing implosion and claw back to the postseason?
As spring gives way to summer, however, another question may creep into the foreground in D.C.: Can the Nats afford to lose Stephen Strasburg next winter and get virtually nothing in return?
Odds are, this will be Strasburg's final season in the nation's capital, one way or another. The 27-year-old right-hander has battled injuries and inconsistency in his six big league seasons, but he's an unmitigated stud who'll be the crown jewel of an otherwise pedestrian 2016-17 free-agent class.
Strasburg dominated in 2014, pacing the Senior Circuit with 242 strikeouts. After grappling with back and neck issues, he finished strong last season, posting a 1.90 ERA with 92 strikeouts in 66.1 innings after the All-Star break, erasing a lot of concern.
Then again, as Chelsea Janes of the Washington Post pointed out, "Contract years can test mental fortitude."
Still, assuming his arm doesn't fall off in 2016, someone is going to throw a lot of years and dollars at Strasburg. A massive bidding war is close to a foregone conclusion.
The Nationals could wade in. They proved they're willing to spend big on pitching with the seven-year, $210 million deal they handed Max Scherzer in January 2015. But the law of supply and demand will not be on their side, and it's easy to imagine a deep-pocketed suitor swooping in and stealing Strasburg.
Oh, and did we mention that his agent is Scott Boras? Cue the cash register sound effect.
Strasburg sounded the right notes recently, doing the familiar "live in the moment, see what happens" two-step that all impending mega-free-agents are expected to do.
"I really don’t know," the former No. 1 overall pick said, per Todd Dybas of the Washington Times. "It's not like I've been in a contract year before. I know what I know, and I know that I go out there, and I bust my butt every single day. If I give it everything [I] have to help this team win some games, all that other stuff is going to take care of itself."
OK, back to the Nats' dilemma. Currently, their goal is to scramble to the top of the National League East heap, period. They entered last season with the hype winds blowing stiffly at their back and proceeded to dissolve into a puddle of dysfunction. Their 83-79 record only hints at the acrimony and disappointment.
Veteran skipper Dusty Baker has replaced Matt Williams at the helm. And while Washington whiffed on big-ticket free-agent targets, including Jason Heyward, they added complementary piece,s such as second baseman Daniel Murphy and outfielder Ben Revere.
The defending NL champion New York Mets are the division favorites until further notice, but the Nats have more than a fighting chance.
They've got reigning NL MVP Bryce Harper, after all, plus a rotation fronted by Scherzer—who twirled a pair of no-hitters last season—and Strasburg. And they can cross their fingers that contributors like Ryan Zimmerman and Anthony Rendon will rebound from injuries.
For what it's worth, FanGraphs projects the Nationals to win the NL East by three games over the Mets. Now they've just got to do it on the field.
Assuming they get off to a strong start and look like clear contenders by the trade deadline, the choice to keep Strasburg will be an easy one. The Nats have been waiting for years to get over the hump, advancing as far as the division series in 2012 and 2014, but never breaking through.
With Harper himself set to hit the open market after the 2018 season, this window won't stay open forever.
On the other hand, if Washington stumbles again and the pitching-rich Mets appear to be running away with things, the temptation to deal Strasburg and net a haul of prospects or MLB-ready talent will grow.
"I think they are willing to listen [to offers] this time," a source told Bleacher Report's Scott Miller in November. "He did well in the second half, so they're thinking of him as a top-of-the-rotation guy. He's not a No. 3 anymore. It would have to be a pretty good price for him. But he is one year from free agency, and he's not going to re-sign."
The winter has come and (almost) gone, and Strasburg remains. Those trade sparks, however, could be reignited in an instant.
Yes, Strasburg would be a rental if the Nats moved him in July. Then again, as general manager Mike Rizzo pointed out, per James Wagner of the Washington Post, "A lot of guys in the last year of their deal reap big rewards in the trade when you’re really good."
One prospect the Nationals discussed this offseason in a potential Strasburg swap, Wagner added, was Los Angeles Dodgers shortstop Corey Seager. That deal never happened, of course, but it gives you a sense of the talent Washington could reap, particularly if Strasburg pitches to the peak of his ability.
So that's where the rock meets the hard place. If Strasburg is dealing like an ace in the waning weeks of July and the Nats are clinging to the fringes of the playoff chase, do they keep him and hope for a surge or cash him in before he bolts for a Boras-aided payday?
Yes, the Nationals could extend a qualifying offer to Strasburg and thus net a draft pick assuming he rejects it and signs elsewhere after the season. But that won't equal what they could get in a trade from a pitching-desperate contender in the heat of the race.
In the end, this is a wait-and-see decision contingent upon variables we can't know until the games count and the action commences. But as the Nationals embark on their 2016 redemption tour, the Strasburg conundrum will loom large in the background.
Maybe they'll run the table and render the point moot. Or perhaps they'll crash and burn and make the choice an easy one.
What seems more probable, however, is that they'll be close enough to go for it, but not far enough ahead to erase all doubt. If that's the case, they should hang on to Strasburg and roll the dice.
Winning windows don't stay open forever. And sometimes, an ace up your sleeve is worth two in the deck.
All statistics courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com unless otherwise noted.
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