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Stephen Strasburg Should Toss Aside $100M Contract After Dominant 2019

Jacob Shafer@@jacobshaferFeatured ColumnistAugust 1, 2019

WASHINGTON, DC - JULY 23: Stephen Strasburg #37 of the Washington Nationals pitches against the Colorado Rockies during the sixth inning at Nationals Park on June 23, 2019 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Scott Taetsch/Getty Images)
Scott Taetsch/Getty Images

After the trade-deadline dominoes fell, Stephen Strasburg remained a member of the Washington Nationals. That was never in doubt.

The question is whether he will be employed in the nation's capital beyond this season. 

The answer is anything but certain.

Strasburg is signed for $25 million next season, $15 million in 2021 and 2022 and $45 million in 2023. That's $100 million in total for the mathematically disinclined. 

The 31-year-old right-hander can also pull an opt-out ripcord this winter and dive into the free-agency waters.

Considering the way he's been pitching and the lack of top-tier arms who will be available as free agents this offseason, it might be wise for him to go that route.

Despite three All-Star appearances and a pair of top-10 National League Cy Young Award finishes, Strasburg has suffered his ups and downs. Injuries and underperformance have frequently derailed his trajectory. 

So far this season, he boasts a 3.26 ERA and 2.94 FIP along with 168 strikeouts in 140.2 frames. His hard-contact rate of 27.4 percent sits below his career average of 28.6 percent.

Yes, he's overshadowed by rotation-mate Max Scherzer, a three-time Cy Young Award winner. But Scherzer recently landed on the 10-day injured list with back issues.

Then there's Patrick Corbin, whom the Nats signed to a six-year, $140 million contract during the offseason. Corbin has been strong with a 3.18 FIP and 10.5 strikeouts per nine innings.

But Strasburg has largely been Scherzer and Corbin's equal. At times, he's surpassed them.

As Michael Baumann of The Ringer put it: "This year, Strasburg is on pace to throw more than 200 innings for the second time in his career. Not only that, but those innings are of exceptional quality. Strasburg is pitching like the ace he was always supposed to be..."

"His fastball was really, really good, and he had good movement," Nationals skipper Dave Martinez told reporters after Strasburg held the potent Los Angeles Dodgers to one run on two hits with no walks and nine strikeouts in seven innings on July 28. "When he starts mixing all his pitches like that, and [he's] able to throw them for strikes whenever he wants, he's tough."

Nick Wass/Associated Press

Strasburg has looked like an ace in fits and starts since the Nationals drafted him first overall in 2009. He made his first All-Star team in 2012, which was also his first full MLB season.

However, he's always hovered slightly below an elite level, in large part due to injuries. Tommy John surgery. Lat strains. Shoulder troubles

Still, this winter's free-agent class is weak in the pitching department. The top name is probably decorated but fading veteran Madison Bumgarner. After that, it's an array of doubtful opt-out candidates, including Jake Arrieta and Yu Darvish.

On the surface, it may appear unwise for Strasburg to opt out. A guaranteed $100 million is nothing to sneeze at.

On the other hand, he would be the best hurler available and has the stuff and experience to nudge a contender over the top. The New York Yankees, Boston Red Sox, Atlanta Braves and Philadelphia Phillies would top the list of teams salivating for his services.

Especially in light of Scherzer's back problems, the Nationals will lean heavily on Strasburg as they try to charge into the playoffs in the first year of their post-Bryce Harper era.

"A lot of times, I think his stuff should be illegal because it's so good," Nationals center fielder Victor Robles told reporters through an interpreter. 

He's been using his off-speed offerings, including his changeup, with increasing frequency and lethal results. Behold, the visual evidence:

Rob Friedman @PitchingNinja

Stephen Strasburg, Ridiculous 89mph Changeup. 😮 https://t.co/ilH4QrJq2L

Surrendering $100 million in guaranteed money would require Strasburg to take a risky bet on himself. Injuries, regression...stuff happens.

But given the paucity of aces available this winter and his present output, it would make sense for him to seek a new, more lucrative contract.

We do live in an era where Dallas Keuchel and Craig Kimbrel dangled unsigned until June. A nine-figure bird in the hand may be worth two in the bush.

But Strasburg would be the toast of the 2019-20 free-agent pitching market, which might lead to an even heftier payday. 

                     

All statistics current as of Wednesday and courtesy of Baseball Reference.