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Stephen Strasburg's 7-Year, $175M Extension Is Calculated Risk for Nationals

Zachary D. Rymer@zachrymerMLB Lead WriterMay 10, 2016

Washington Nationals starting pitcher Stephen Strasburg (37) delivers a pitch during the first inning of an interleague baseball game against the Detroit Tigers, Monday, May 9, 2016, in Washington. (AP Photo/Nick Wass)
Nick Wass/Associated Press

The Washington Nationals have decided to count on a guy who's traditionally been hard to count on.

They could be glad they did.

For now, Stephen Strasburg can count his money. As Chelsea Janes of the Washington Post and Jon Heyman of MLB Network reported before and during Strasburg's outing against the Detroit Tigers on Monday, the 27-year-old right-hander is getting a contract extension worth $175 million over seven years*.

Oh, right. The asterisk. Heyman noted that Strasburg's deal includes deferrals, so its value is actually less than $175 million. Further, Buster Olney of ESPN reported that Strasburg could play only three years of his seven-year contract before getting out of it:

Buster Olney @Buster_ESPN

Stephen Strasburg gets a rolling opt out after year 3 or 4 in his deal, in his 7/$175m. Could get 7m in performance bonuses.

So, don't think of this as a seven-year deal. It's more like a three-year deal with a four-year player option or a four-year deal with a three-year player option.

Even still, the fact that there's any kind of deal between the Nationals and Strasburg is an eyebrow-raiser. As a Scott Boras client, he's among a breed not known for signing extensions before free agency. And in Strasburg's case, his free agency was less than six months away.

Clearly, Strasburg wasn't kidding when he told B/R's Scott Miller during spring training: "The thing I've come to learn is anything can happen. Anything can happen a week from now or eight or nine months from now."

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John Raoux/Associated Press

Perhaps all Strasburg needed to see was fair market value, and that's roughly what he's gotten.

The going rate for an ace pitcher is at least $25 million per year, and the only ace pitcher cred Strasburg lacks is durability. Otherwise, the former No. 1 pick's 3.07 ERA since 2010 arguably undersells how good he's been. According to his FIP and xFIP, Strasburg's dominance over the last six-plus seasons rivals that of Clayton Kershaw.

And he's getting better. Strasburg went into Monday's outing with a 2.08 ERA and 139-to-17 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 16 starts dating back to last summer. There was never anything wrong with his control, his curveball or his changeup, but now he's benefiting from more high fastballs (see before and after at Brooks Baseball) and a new slider that can do this:

#Statcast @statcast

Stephen Strasburg says he isn’t throwing a slider … But what is THAT? https://t.co/vUi5pi2BIl #Statcast https://t.co/ieJ9ut29By

If Strasburg were to keep this up all year, odds are he would have found more than seven years and $175 million on the free-agent market. The contracts of David Price and Zack Greinke prove that the best aces can garner more than $30 million per year, and Strasburg would have had the advantage of lackluster competition. Whereas this past winter's market was loaded with quality pitching, this winter's market was going to have little of that outside of Strasburg.

But given his history, Strasburg can't be blamed for getting his while the getting is good. That's also where the Nationals' risk creeps into the conversation.

Though Strasburg has generally been good when healthy, "when healthy" is a bigger problem for him than it is for other aces. He's reached 30 starts only twice and logged over 200 innings only once. Multiple injuries have played a part in that, with his 2010 Tommy John operation being the biggest.

Which leads us to this thought from Jeff Passan of Yahoo Sports: "The Nationals are betting as much on future performance as past—a tricky wager seeing as they're the franchise that has publicly said they fear the health of Tommy John pitchers after their seventh year post-op. Strasburg's seventh year is next season."

It's possible Strasburg's elbow could break down again. In fact, according to the model developed by Bradley Woodrum, Tim Dierkes and the rest of the MLB Trade Rumors staff, Strasburg began the year with well above average risk for another Tommy John operation.

If another injury doesn't get Strasburg, declining stuff might. His average fastball velocity of 94.7 mph is very good but down from his 97.3 mph peak in 2010 and 95-96 mph in four of the last five years. And according to research by Bill Petti of FanGraphs, Strasburg is already past the point when starters tend to begin leaking velocity. There's a high probability his velocity will keep going down.

So though this isn't technically a free-agent contract, it's just as risky as your standard free-agent contract. Washington's $175 million looks like money well spent in the present, but that could change.

But as is usually the case with contemporary contracts, we must also acknowledge that the opt-out (or opt-outs in this case) changes things. If the Nationals are hedging their bet on the possibility they'll have to pay Strasburg only for the next three seasons, it's not hard to see what they have in mind.

By keeping Strasburg in town for at least the next three years, Washington will have him for what will likely be the rest of Max Scherzer's prime. That will ensure it at least has an elite duo atop its rotation. And as arguably the best prospect in the minor leagues right now, flame-throwing right-hander Lucas Giolito could turn that elite duo into an elite trio if he lives up to his billing. The Nationals also control Gio Gonzalez, Tanner Roark and Joe Ross through 2018.

The 2018 season is also due to be Bryce Harper's last in Washington. If all the speculation about his inevitable payday—he said "don't sell me short" when asked about a $400 million deal in February—has the Nationals already resigned to losing him, then loading up to go for World Series glory before he leaves is undeniably their best avenue going forward.

Locking up Strasburg always was going to be the first step forward in that direction. And though the deal does come with a cloud of risk, the Nationals could very well walk away happy.

Stats courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com and FanGraphs unless otherwise noted/linked.

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