Searching for an ideal trade candidate at this stage of the season isn’t easy. Trades are just now starting to kick in as teams make assessments of their chances of competing for a playoff spot.
Trades are more likely when a non-contending team has a player with an expiring contract, one that’s ticking the days away until free agency, but that description doesn’t fit the clearest trade candidates at starting pitcher: Matthew Boyd and Sonny Gray are under contract through the 2022 seasons. Acquiring either is acquiring a longer term asset that’s about to get expensive.
There is no rental... well, except one — and he’s not even mentioned in the “other” section of the Top-50 trade candidates on MLB Trade Rumors.
But will he be available?
Before we discuss the player, let’s discuss the situation.
Never in my life would I think the Nationals would be sellers at a trade deadline, and right now that looks like it will still be the case. Even though the Braves are running away with the NL East division...
Washington remains sixth in the playoff hunt overall, keeping just ahead of the Cardinals, despite poor playoff odds and a record below .500. Washington is the sixth lowest in the standings in this look:
And the Wild Card hunt remains wide open (here are the NL teams without the division leaders):
The Nationals could easily fall out of contention.
As we edge closer to the 2019 trade deadline on July 31, this group of teams will teeter and totter between contending and not, but Washington’s status is likely to be resolved more quickly than the others. The Nats have seven games against Philly and Atlanta in the next week, and then six against Miami in the following nine.
If the Nationals falter their next run of games, some of their players may finally become available. The rumor mill has focused on near-term free agents like Sean Doolittle or Anthony Rendon (and indeed either could greatly improve the Rays), but may I suggest a different player destined for free agency?
I should reiterate that he is unlikely to be available. Nationals GM Mike Rizzo is still thinking about “championship runs” when reviewing his roster and considering the future; that’s why Max Scherzer is not available in trade discussions. The Nationals plan to contend next year, and this year for as long as possible. But if the team fades quickly over the next week or so, Strasburg has to be a consideration thanks to his bizarre contract with the Nationals, which has two opt outs coming in 2019 and 2020, the former of which is almost definitely set to be exercised as he concludes his age-30 season.
After this season Strasburg’s contract is bananas, even after considering the 2019 opt out opportunity, ending on a poison pill. 2020: $25M (with opt out), 2021: $15M, 2022:$ 15M, 2023:$45M. If he were to suffer an injury, something not out of the question for Strasburg, an acquiring team could be on the hook for a lot of money.
But even if he were hurt, one has to think Strasburg will test the market, especially when considering what other pitchers of his talent level have signed in recent history. Jacob deGrom just landed a $137.5 million guarantee with an option at age 30; David Price tipped the scales with a $217 million guarantee at the same age. Strasburg must think he stands to make more than the four years, $100 million guarantee he’s owed after 2019, even in a depressed free agent environment.
Consider the words of his agent Scott Boras to Buster Olney, as transcribed by Business Insider:
In order to get Strasburg to sign the extension, the Nationals were forced to include an “unheard of” feature to the deal: two chances for Strasburg to opt out of the deal, either after the third or fourth years. And listening to Boras describe the deal, it sounds like Strasburg will never see the final three years of the contract.
Boras was a guest on ESPN’s “Baseball Tonight” podcast where he was asked by Buster Olney about the importance of the double-opt-out and the Nationals’ reaction when he proposed the structure.
”It’s rather unheard of, so they certainly had to discuss it,” Boras said. “I made them know that one of the points of light here was that we felt economically we could certainly do as well or better in the free-agent market and I think they were in agreement ... In the back of my mind, the rolling opt-out was very, very important.” [...]
“The goal that I foresaw was that Stephen Strasburg will be a true free agent once he has the innings and the performance record to illustrate to owners three or four years from now that he is the elite pitcher,” Boras told Olney. “I think for me, how I define a negotiation is that there is a value for Stephen Strasburg in potential leverage and there is a much higher value for Stephen Strasburg at star leverage. And these next three or four seasons of Stephen’s performance will place him in that star category.”
Stephen Strasburg has not gotten his best results in 2019; his 3.75 ERA is only slightly above average instead of elite, but his 3.29 FIP and 3.11 xFIP indicate that a stronger performance is hiding behind the runs allowed. His strikeout rate remains around his career average of 29%, as does his walk rate of 6.2%. Strasburg is who he always was, a perennial near-ace on a team yet to win it all.
If he were traded today, he would be owed just a little less than $20 million for the rest of the year, and that amount will decrease with each game played. It’s a reasonable cost for the caliber of pitcher he is.
Stephen Strasburg is the ideal rental for a team in playoff contention, and is the only such rental on the market. And as we learned with Cliff Lee, failing to get the best pitcher available runs the risk of having to face that very same pitcher in the playoffs.
If the Cliff Lee trade is your guide, it’s an ugly one. The Mariners procured Baseball America’s No. 13 prospect from the Rangers for Lee’s services in Justin Smoak (Texas’s No. 2 prospect), as well as prospects Blake Beavan (former 17th overall pick), Matt Lawson, and Josh Lueke. To complete the deal, the Mariners also sent 100-mph reliever Mark Lowe to Texas.
Strasburg is not performing at Lee’s level (few ever will), nor should that trade scare the Rays away. Smoak has produced a career ~7 WAR, Beavan produced 1.4 after being ranked the ninth best prospect in the Rangers system, Lawson never made the majors, and Lueke — well we know that guy. Baseball is a difficult sport, and if the Rays know their system they should be able to build a deal that entices DC. It’s the benefit of a deep farm system. Meanwhile, Lowe became a great asset for the Rangers in years beyond the one-year rental of Lee. They were the clear winners of the deal.
Building a trade
The Nationals system has five 45 FV prospects or better, including two SS and three RHP. They could use a reload of the farm, and should be open to accepting most any position. As for the Rays version of Smoak, the very best pieces on the Rays will not be available — McKay (about to enter the Rays rotation) and Franco (the No. 1 prospect in baseball) are untouchable.
Instead, based on their system’s needs, I would think the Nats would be more interested in major league ready OF Jesus Sanchez for their opening in right field more than farther off second baseman Vidal Brujan to anchor the deal, although both are 55 FV prospects of note. Baseball America considers Sanchez the better of the two, although just by four spots in the Top-100 at No. 47 and 51 respectively.
From there, the Nationals would be wise to push for a 45 FV prospect from the Rays deep system, which for the Rays means between No. 10 and 22 from the system, which does mirror the Lee deal from nearly a decade ago. Outfielders Josh Lowe (Double-A) or Nick Schnell (Rookie league) could fit the bill as former first round talents, but the Nationals would likely be better advised to prioritize system needs over pedigree, perhaps bringing UTIL Nick Solak into focus.
Add two more fliers and you’re there. If the Rays do deal two of their top-100 prospects by including Solak, perhaps in the deal they could also procure their own Mark Lowein another expiring contract on DC’s books (Sean Doolittle, come on down!). Of course that complicated the entire trade scenario, but that’s half the fun.
Let’s acknowledge that contract one more time. Tampa Bay will need to negotiate in some protections in case Strasburg does not elect to opt out of his contract, at least to offset the poison pill in the final year. Those safeguards should not matter too much though, as that opt out is coming in 2019 and 2020. One of those gets picked up.
The Nationals would be giving up on 2019, but would be right in line to re-sign Strasburg as a top free agent pitcher the season after trading him away for top talent — not much unlike the Yankees accomplished with the Cubs and Aroldis Chapman. It all depends on what the Nationals see in the mirror in a couple weeks.
Hopefully a lesson was learned when Harper walked. Rizzo would be wise to blow it up, turning his several free agents into a restocked farm system when playoffs are not likely to come on the horizon.
Rizzo’s comments to Ken Rosenthal indicate it will at least be on his mind this year:
“We all build these teams to win championships. But you also have to be flexible and open-minded enough to know when you have to make changes and go in a different direction.”
The Nationals could acquire a haul of prospects and then rebuild quickly. They have the financial resources to compete again immediately in 2020. Blowing it up should be an easy decision to make.