The Washington Nationals and Stephen Strasburg agreed to a seven-year, $175 million contract with player opt-outs after the third and fourth years. The two sides agreed to a deal despite the fact that Strasburg is a Scott Boras client, the type of player notoriously less likely to agree to such a deal. It is also intriguing because, after Jordan Zimmermann agreed to a five-year, $110 million deal in the offseason with the Detroit Tigers, Strasburg immediately ups the ante with a larger contract that eclipses it as the largest contract ever signed by a former Tommy John surgery patient.
Strasburg is a better pitcher than Zimmermann, and he is an ace despite the middling comparison between his ERA performance and his reputation as a former hyped first draft pick. Still, Dave Cameron of FanGraphs thinks this is an appropriate deal for the Nationals and Strasburg.
Strasburg didn’t break the bank, and relative to what he could have gotten in free agency, he probably left some money on the table. But he wasn’t at free agency yet, and there’s enough risk that he might not have made it there that this seems to be a perfectly reasonable decision, especially considering the marginal difference in a few extra tens of millions of dollars to a guy who will have earned more than $200 million during his career by the time this contract ends. While I’d imagine Scott Boras would have loved the opportunity to produce a book of plaudits about Strasburg’s arm, it seems like Strasburg made a perfectly reasonable decision to take the guaranteed money now rather than further testing the limits of his surgically-repaired elbow.
Cameron thinks that this was a low price to pay for a pitcher if he were not recovering from Tommy John surgery, but the "discount" of having undergone the surgery is due to the fact that Tommy John surgery often has to be revised. The oft-stated number is something like seven years after the initial surgery, and Jeff Zimmermann of Hardball Times has noted four or so years.
All of this is relevant to the Marlins in their never-ending quest to find a contract for Jose Fernandez to keep him in Miami for the long haul. Fernandez and Strasburg are similar players, having had huge hype coming into their careers. Strasburg gathered his hype as a college player dominating out of San Diego State, while Fernandez lit the world on fire in his rookie year en route to a Rookie of the Year award. Both pitchers have yet to pitch long seasons on the mound; Strasburg has thrown only one year with over 200 innings in four "full" seasons in the majors, while Fernandez has only once thrown more than 65 innings in his career. Both recovered from Tommy John with similar timing. Both also have run into injury issues after that, with forearm issues for Fernandez and neck/shoulder concerns hindering Strasburg.
Durability has always been a concern for Strasburg, and it figures to be a concern for Fernandez as well. And the Marlins are definitely worried about the health of any potential future investments; the team has only once committed more than four years to a starting pitcher, and that was last season to free agent Wei-Yin Chen. The club has once even been burned by a four-year pitcher deal, handing a contract to Josh Johnson after he had two great seasons post-Tommy John recovery, only for him to struggle just one year into the deal.
Now the market (presumably to beat) for fellow Boras client and Tommy John surgery patient Jose Fernandez is set. Strasburg signed his deal oddly just months before the final year of his team control ended. Boras is unlikely to agree to a contract any earlier than that final year, but it may be a sign that he more lenient and willing to play ball with a player facing as much risk as a Tommy John surgery player. At the same time, the price is still going to be in the region of $25 million a year, and likely more given two caveats:
- By the time Fernandez reaches that time period, he may have put on two more strong seasons along with his rookie campaign
- The price for wins will surely be higher by that point as well
The Marlins have to make a smart decision on what to do with Fernandez after this season. Presuming Fernandez recovers and plays well in what has so far been a strange 2016 campaign, he will certainly earn the richest post-Tommy John surgery contract in baseball history. However, if he has trouble racking up innings either due to further injury concerns or command problems leading to high pitch counts like early this year, he may limit his opportunities and discourage Miami and other teams from attempting any larger deal. Still, Fernandez will almost certainly have plenty of suitors in free agency provided he stays healthy, and Strasburg is the model for Fernandez to try and get the biggest deal he can once he reaches free agency in three years. Is Miami willing to pay that kind of cost?