When Max Scherzer signed with the Washington Nationals yesterday, the prevailing thought was that the Nationals would look to trade a starting pitcher. Seeing as they currently have six guys on their 40-man roster to cover five spots, this seemed like a safe bet. Many people -- myself included -- thought Jordan Zimmermann was the logical choice to hit the trade block. He's young, talented, and has one year of club control remaining.
Then, reporter John Perrotto tweeted a rumor about the Nationals looking to trade Stephen Strasburg. This is something that had been floated around even prior to Scherzer agreeing to the most ridiculous contract ever, but Perrotto's tweet gave the situation more finality than we have previously heard. Dave Dombrowski refuted rumors about James Shields yesterday,and expressed confidence in Alfredo Simon's ability as a starter. While he seems happy with the starting rotation, would he say no to Stephen Strasburg?
*2015 Steamer projection
Who is he?
If you haven't heard about Stephen Strasburg by now, you're probably lost. The consensus number one pick in the 2009 amateur draft out of San Diego State University, Strasburg was instantly named the #1 prospect in all of baseball heading into the 2010 season. He backed up the hype, striking out 14 Pittsburgh Pirates in his MLB debut and allowing a 2.91 ERA and 2.08 FIP in his first two months in the big leagues. However, the excitement was short-lived. Strasburg underwent Tommy John surgery in September of 2010, limiting him to just 24 MLB innings in 2011.
He was a big part of the Nationals' breakout season in 2012, allowing a 3.16 ERA and 2.83 FIP in 28 starts. However, the team did not back down from their original promise to limit his innings, and shut him down for the season with the team in the middle of a pennant race in September. He allowed a 3.00 ERA in 183 innings in 2013, and topped the 200-inning barrier with a 3.14 ERA and 2.94 FIP in 2014.
Why should we care?
Strasburg might have had the quietest ace-caliber season in baseball in 2014. He pitched 215 innings, allowed a 3.14 ERA and 2.94 FIP, led the National League with 242 strikeouts, and walked under two batters per nine innings. Being overshadowed by Clayton Kershaw is one thing, but Strasburg finished ninth in the NL Cy Young voting last season. Two of his teammates -- Zimmermann and Doug Fister -- earned more votes than him. However, Strasburg led the Nationals' rotation in innings pitched, strikeout rate, and SIERA. He cut his walk rate from the mid-sevens to five percent and averaged 6 1/3 innings per start, the most efficient rate of his career.
Unlike Zimmermann and Fister, Strasburg is under club control through the 2016 season. The Tigers would get two full years out of him at a discounted price, giving them the chance to reap plenty of surplus value. These two seasons are smack within the middle of Strasburg's prime, and with little chance of retaining him beyond 2016, the Tigers won't need to treat him with the kid gloves that Washington did in 2012 and 2013.
Why should we stay away?
While he has an extra year of club control remaining (compared to Zimmermann), Strasburg is represented by super agent Scott Boras. A pre-free agency contract extension would be highly unlikely, and a hometown discount simply would not happen. Strasburg will be relatively affordable at $7.4 million in 2015 and roughly $12-14 million in 2016, but anything in 2017 and beyond would likely begin to scratch Scherzer territory. Strasburg will be two years younger than Scherzer entering free agency, so the $210 million price tag might even be considered a floor for those negotiations.
Will he end up in Detroit?
I was hesitant to doubt Dave Dombrowski's trading ability yesterday, but I have a hard time seeing how the Tigers would be able to pull this one off. Strasburg is one of the very best pitchers in baseball, has two years of club control remaining before free agency, and will cost less than one year of Max Scherzer over the course of the next two seasons. The only feasible deal I can think of involves David Price, but the extra year of club control for Strasburg would likely require the Tigers to throw in extra players. It's possible -- we've said "it will never happen" before and been wrong -- but I doubt it happens.