Stephen Strasburg or Gerrit Cole? Phillies' path to an ace opens up


Hours after the Nationals' parade Saturday afternoon, World Series MVP Stephen Strasburg opted out of the remaining four years of his contract, NBC Sports Washington's Todd Dybas confirms.

It was not a surprising move, though it would have been six months ago. The final four years of Strasburg's deal with Washington were set to pay him $100 million — $25 million in 2020, $15 million in 2021, $15 million in 2022, $45 million in 2023.

That $45 million salary in the final year was designed to entice Strasburg to let the contract play out. But he had such an amazing season in 2019 that he's now in a position to earn much more than $100 million moving forward. 

Even at 31 years old, Strasburg could be in line for a five-year deal. Everything fell into place for him this season. He was the healthiest he's ever been. He got better as the season progressed. After leading the National League in innings pitched, he was one of the only starting pitchers this postseason to maintain or exceed that production. He pitched 36⅓ innings in the 2019 playoffs and went 5-0 with a 1.98 ERA and nine times as many strikeouts as walks. No pitcher before Strasburg ever went 5-0 in a single postseason, though there are obviously more playoff rounds now than there were for the vast majority of baseball's existence.

Strasburg instantly becomes the second-best pitcher on the free-agent market, behind Gerrit Cole and ahead of Zack Wheeler. Strasburg is two years and two months older than Cole, is not quite as good and has a more significant injury history. Thus, Cole is still likely to sign the much larger contract. Cole could receive $300 million. Strasburg's guarantee might be half of that.

The Phillies couldn't go wrong with either pitcher. That's true of any team in baseball. Cole would be the No. 1 starter on 30 teams and Strasburg would be the No. 1 for about 25, including the Phillies.

It's hard to say which pitcher will be the more shrewd investment. Cole is younger and better but may cost twice as much. Does the price difference offset Cole's superiority?

An interesting dynamic this offseason is that both Cole and Strasburg are Scott Boras clients. So, too, is Anthony Rendon. It will be another fun winter for Boras, who controls even more of free agency than usual this winter. 

The biggest question teams will have to ask themselves about Strasburg this offseason is whether he can be trusted to stay as healthy as he did in 2019 for the bulk of his next contract. The team that signs him will be paying for his early-and-mid-30s seasons, notoriously the years in which a starting pitcher slows down. Strasburg had a 3.28 ERA the last five seasons and averaged 26 starts per year. It would be illogical at worst, optimistic at best to expect him to maintain both numbers over the next five.

And yet still, you look at what the Patrick Corbin signing meant to the 2019 Nationals, you look at what it means to have actual thoroughbreds in October and you wonder whether Years 4 and 5 of Strasburg's mega-deal should even matter to a team with win-now aspirations. Even if Corbin were to miss two full seasons over the remainder of his deal, that deal was a win for the Nationals. They won the World Series.

The Phillies will pursue Cole. They will pursue Strasburg. They will pursue Wheeler. They will almost certainly look into a Cole Hamels reunion. They will leave no stone unturned in their quest to substantially boost the starting rotation. With one more ace now on the market, their chances of achieving that upgrade are stronger. Get ready for another fun, rumor-filled Phillies offseason.

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