As the Washington Nationals paraded around the nation's capital last month, basking in the glory of an improbable, first-ever World Series title, the celebration was presumably interrupted by moments of wistfulness.
The newly christened champions were poised, after all, to lose at least one franchise cornerstone in the coming months. Anthony Rendon, their star third baseman who's led his position in WAR over the previous three years, was about to hit free agency. Meanwhile, Stephen Strasburg, the hard-throwing right-hander and reigning World Series MVP whom the club had drafted first overall a decade earlier, wielded an opt-out clause that he'd soon exercise. Losing both was possible, too.
To mount a respectable title defense in 2020 - and secure their future - the Nationals would need to bring back at least one of those guys, or a comparably gifted replacement. But even in the champagne-soaked afterglow of a World Series title, the possibility of re-signing them both seemed fanciful. Last week, ahead of the winter meetings, principal owner Mark Lerner put that idea to bed.
"We really can only afford to have one of those two guys," Lerner told NBC Sports' Donald Dell. "They're huge numbers. We already have a really large payroll to begin with."
So, the veracity of that statement notwithstanding, general manager Mike Rizzo had to choose. He went with Strasburg.
On Monday, the Nationals agreed to a record-breaking deal with the 31-year-old ace, signing Strasburg to a reported seven-year contract worth $245 million. It also apparently contains a full no-trade clause, and until Gerrit Cole signs, it'll be the largest contract ever given to a pitcher in terms of both overall value and average annual value ($35 million). While it's not surprising to see the Nationals bring back Strasburg, who signed a seven-year extension with the club in 2014 and moved his family to Washington on a full-time basis last offseason, it is surprising at this price point.
The Nationals probably could've re-signed Rendon, after all, for that kind of money.
Nolan Arenado, another elite third baseman, got a comparable sum from the Colorado Rockies last spring to forego free agency, signing a seven-year extension worth $260 million. A few weeks earlier, Manny Machado got a 10-year, $300-million contract from the San Diego Padres in free agency.
Rendon is better than both of those players, to be sure, but he's also considerably older, too. Arenado turned 28 shortly after finalizing his deal. Machado turned 27 in July. Rendon, meanwhile, will be 30 before the upcoming All-Star break. In fact, the Nationals might've been able to get him for less than $245 million. At the outset of the offseason, FanGraphs' crowdsourcing projected Rendon to get $191 million. Over at The Athletic, former Cincinnati Reds and Nationals general manager Jim Bowden forecasted a seven-year deal worth $231 million for the newly minted All-Star.
Even if Rendon were to command more than Strasburg, though, he'd still be the sounder investment. He's younger. He's better. He's more durable. And, perhaps most importantly, he isn't a pitcher who throws extremely hard and has already undergone Tommy John surgery.
Still, as vexing as it may be, the Nationals deserve the benefit of the doubt at this point. Since taking over as general manager in 2009, Rizzo has yet to seriously err with the Lerner family's money, and most of his major financial commitments have yielded handsome returns.
Though Rizzo was lambasted at the time for giving Jayson Werth a seven-year, $126-million contract, the veteran outfielder still managed a 117 wRC+ in his time with Washington and played a meaningful role on the playoff-bound clubs of 2012 and 2014. Max Scherzer's seven-year, $215-million megadeal, meanwhile, may well produce the most surplus value of any of Rizzo's contracts, and the first three seasons of Strasburg's first extension - the seven-year, $175-million deal he opted out of - saw the three-time All-Star finish in the top five in NL Cy Young voting twice. Rafael Soriano, Daniel Murphy, and - at least so far - Patrick Corbin also proved to be smart investments by Rizzo.
In truth, the only major deal engineered by Rizzo that history may not look favorably upon is the six-year, $100-million extension he gave Ryan Zimmerman in 2012. However, the veteran first baseman was still serviceable, at worst, this past October, managing a .735 OPS in 16 postseason contests. That kind of portfolio makes it easier to trust Rizzo, if not necessarily understand why the Nationals would opt for Strasburg over Rendon.
Don't get me wrong: Strasburg is a bona fide stud. He's coming off one of the finest seasons of his exceptional career, having crafted a 3.32 ERA (138 ERA+) over 209 innings before dominating in the postseason, and he ranks eighth among qualified starters in fielding independent pitching (3.04) over the last half-decade.
Absent Rendon, though, the Nationals' lineup looks pretty punchless, with Juan Soto representing their lone impact hitter who can play on an everyday basis. (Trea Turner and Adam Eaton are merely good hitters, and Howie Kendrick, at this point in his career, is only a semi-regular player.) Carter Kieboom, who's now poised to take over at third base, is a highly touted prospect lauded for his hitting ability, but he's not Rendon. On the flip side, Washington's rotation would still be pretty good even without Strasburg, with Scherzer, Corbin, and Anibal Sanchez providing a terrific top of the rotation.
Clearly, though, Rizzo knows what he's doing. Throughout his tenure, elite starting pitching has been a priority of his, and his investment strategy has reflected that philosophy - one that paid off handsomely, at long last, in 2019. He's earned the right not to be second-guessed.
Jonah Birenbaum is theScore's senior MLB writer. He steams a good ham. You can find him on Twitter @birenball.