Monday, December 23, 2019

There’s No Place Like Home

By Jeff Kallman

The temptation is overwhelming. So for once let's give in to temptation. Stephen Strasburg, essentially, closed his eyes, clicked the heels of his spiked shoes, and chanted the mantra, "There's no place like home! There's no place like home!" And made himself a Washington National for life. Which was the probable outcome, after all, when he first bought a home in the D.C. region and then finished 2019 as the world champions' World Series MVP.

That, as no few commentators observed in the immediate wake of Monday's news, is what happens when a pitcher learns within the earliest days of his major league baseball life that he happens to wear the uniform of a team that actually cares about him as a human as well as a pitcher in the long term and not the short range. Enough to withstand a small but incinerating storm of criticism for acting upon it.

That's what Strasburg learned, not without a little kicking and a little whispering (he doesn't exactly scream), between 2010 and 2012. When he first hit the old disabled list (known nowadays as the injured list) in July 2010 with a stiff shoulder, hit it again after being in too-obvious pain in the fifth inning of an August start, then underwent Tommy John surgery and missed the rest of that plus the entire 2011 season.

When former pitcher-turned-broadcaster Rob Dibble, then a Nats talker, said on the air that Strasburg just needed to suck it up and not call in the cavalry to save his butt every time he felt a little ache, the uproar cost Dibble his job. And helped save Strasburg's career.

There were none so blind as those who couldn't and wouldn't see that there's no such thing as one size fitting every last pitcher who takes the mound, and that there's no such thing concurrently as every last pitcher experiencing pain in the limb that earns his keep equaling crystal over iron. It only took baseball thought a century to grok that pitching careers lasting two decades or just beyond were aberrations and not pre-ordained actualities, that you couldn't and shouldn't, really, expect every highly talented arm to endure just because some were so fortunate.

Strasburg underwent a surgery named for a man who'd been a quality pitcher for 12 seasons prior to undergoing the first such procedure and 12 more to follow, but a man who wasn't exactly renowned around the game for throwing like a human howitzer, either. When he returned for 2012, the Nationals elected not to allow their prize, a well-hyped, high-priced product of San Diego State in the first place, to overdo it despite any personal inclination, his first full season back. And once again the hoopla, this time accusing the Nats practically of tanking it on behalf of preserving the crystal, never mind that their 2012 and 2013 shortfalls had nothing to do with the Strasburg Plan.

Strasburg didn't implode the Nats in Game 5 of the 2012 division series, when they followed a 6-0 lead taken in the first two innings by trying to hit 6-run homers with every other swing of the bat or by trying to throw three strikes with every pitch from the mound. It wasn't Strasburg who told the 2013 Nats they could survive without left-handed relief. He didn't tell anyone that Bryce Harper could survive trying to make himself the second coming of Pistol Pete Reiser in the outfield just because today's fences are only slightly more forgiving than the concrete wall in old Ebbets Field, or that the Nats could survive him and other key men (Jayson Werth, Wilson Ramos) on the DL with little substantial reserves on which to call in their absence. And Strasburg wasn't the genius who told that year's Nats the starting rotation could take the mound believing nothing better than that they had to throw shutouts just to break even.

There were none so dumb as those who spoke beyond their competence, either. The reports of the Nats' competitive death were more than slightly exaggerated, and so were those saying their absolute World Series-winning window got slammed shut on their fingers. It took a few years, of course, but there's something to be said for long-term planning and executing, hiccups (there were plenty enough) to one side, and today the Nats sit as world champions, in large portion because of the 31-year-old right-hander who's graduated through long, hard, smartly managed work into a near-perfect number two starter and a postseason menace.

Set that to one side, however, and listen to those in the know who knew that in his heart of hearts, however tempting might have been the offers that would lure him back to within immediate reach of his San Diego roots (the Dodgers and the Angels were thought to have eyes upon him), Strasburg didn't want to be anywhere but in Washington. Crunching the numbers is fun and revelatory, especially when you divine as The Athletic's Jayson Stark has: "I have to wonder if we should be looking at the actual "value" of this deal by dividing $245 million by seven. That's because Strasburg was already guaranteed four years, $100 million before he opted out of his last contract. So he actually got three years, $145 million out of the opt-out. That comes to $48.333 million a year. How 'bout that AAV!"

Strasburg didn't exactly behave after the World Series like a young man eager to hit the road, Jack, as Sports Illustrated's Stephanie Apstein records: "The Nationals knew something else: Strasburg wanted this done. During negotiations, he asked for the team to open the ballpark every day so he could work out. So when general manager Mike Rizzo and managing principal owner Mark Lerner identified Strasburg as their top priority this offseason, they decided to act like it. They began discussing a potential deal as the 2019 season closed, and they talked in earnest after Strasburg officially opted out on Nov. 2. That urgency appealed to Strasburg, if not exactly to his agent."

You can accuse Scott Boras of many things, plausibility be damned as it so often is when his name arises, but not caring about his clients above and beyond the commission dollars they earn him for his efforts isn't one of those charges. (One of the most plain stupid arguments around Boras essentially denies that this is in fact what agents do, assume the heavy lifting of negotiating for their clients on a properly open job market, which in Hollywood and other entertainment worlds is thought right and proper but in professional sports is thought somehow unseemly if not criminal.)

"To establish a legacy and wear the curly W for his career was something that was very important to [Strasburg]," Boras told Apstein. "And I think it was because he knew that people in this organization cared deeply about him and always cared about his interests and the interests of his family." Meaning that, for all those moments when Strasburg wasn't entirely happy about the old Plan, as Apstein puts it, "[S]omewhere along the way, he began to feel grateful that his bosses took the long view. His heart was here, but so was his arm, thanks to those weeks on the bench."

Now the hardest part will be making sure Strasburg's long, slow arising up from the stoic presence he was for so long continues. Little by little, he learned to loosen up in the dugout and finally couldn't resist getting drawn into the revelries upon this or that moment's triumphs. The smiles now far more frequent from his fully bearded phiz can provide backup power in the event of a Nationals Park blackout. As illustrated on Twitter — by the Nats themselves, tweeting the news of his signing not with a look at him on the mound but a look at him hitting and celebrating a mammoth 3-run homer against the Braves — Stras gotta dance, too.

Boras isn't entirely altruistic, of course, and he knows bloody well enough that Strasburg now off the market means his other high-profile pitching client Gerrit Cole stands to make out even more like the proverbial bandit, possibly this week during the winter meetings electrified Monday by the Strasburg heel click, if not by some time in early January. If nothing else Strasburg now prompts the Yankees and the Angels — both of whom are known to be all-in on Cole, both of whom are now bereft of a plausible backup in Strasburg — to remake and remodel the numbers enough that Cole lacking Strasburg's full track record, quite (Cole's lifetime ERA: 3.22; Strasburg: 3.17; Cole's lifetime fielding-independent pitching: 3.06; Strasburg: 2.96), could yet make for spring training a $300 million man.

While you ponder what it all means for Anthony Rendon, in the wake of the Nats saying they could afford either Strasburg or Rendon, but not quite both, it's not yet to rule out that Rendon and the Nats might yet decide it's worth whatever it takes either or both sides to keep him in Nationals Park, too. The Rangers appear to be in position with Rendon as the Angels and Dodgers, possibly, were with Strasburg before Monday, a homecoming option for the Houston native and a nebula for the Rangers moving into a new climate-controlled ballpark and needing such a nebula to help the on-field product and the gate counts. And the Nats still have a bullpen to repair behind Daniel Hudson and Sean Doolittle, which repairs aren't exactly prone to year-end clearance sales.

Rendon may yet remember that, a year ago, the Nats said publicly they weren't going to break the proverbial bank for Bryce Harper because among other things they wanted to keep Rendon in the family. (We've learned long since that that wasn't quite the complete story.) And Boras, his agent, too, also has one habit one wishes were known far more broadly than it is, which the Harper talks with the Phillies last winter disclosed: when his client prefers to talk to the incumbent or prospective employer himself, the agent obeys when, as Harper did talking to the Phillies, he's told politely to keep his big trap shut.

There remained the prospect, perhaps taking his cue from Strasburg, perhaps thinking entirely without that factor, perhaps an equal division between the two, that Rendon, too, would click the heels of his spiked shoes and intone, without once referring to his native Texas, "There's no place like home! There's no place like home!" The prospect remained only long enough for Tony Two Bags to sign with the Angels for seven years and $245 million. He might have become a Ranger but for the Rangers offering six years and standing firm upon that. There are more important things than money to even the highest-priced baseball players. Stability is not low among them.

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