The champion Nats and affordability

2019-12-06 AnthonyRendonStephenStrasburg

Anthony Rendon and Stephen Strasburg share a high five in Atlanta during 2019. The Nats say they can’t afford to keep both. Depends on how you look at it? (USA Today photo.)

One of the Nationals’ postseason titans will remain a Nat for 2020 at least. Howie Kendrick’s reward for putting paid to the Dodgers’ 2019 and for bombing the Nats ahead to stay in Game Seven of the World Series is a one-year, $6.25 million deal.

That’s the good news. The bad news for Nats fans is that owner Mark Lerner says they can afford to keep only one of their two homegrowns who are now testing their first serious free agency markets.

At minimum, it seems, either Stephen Strasburg or Anthony Rendon is “affordable” even for the team whose ownership—if you include Lerner’s father, Ted, whose fortune anchors in real estate—is baseball’s second richest (net worth $5.3 billion) at this writing, with Giants owner Charles Johnson first richest (net worth $5.1 billion) pending the Mets’ transition to Steve Cohen’s ownership. (Cohen’s net worth: around $15 billion.)

But they can’t afford both.

“We really can only afford to have one of those two guys,” said Lerner about Strasburg and Rendon to NBC Sports Washington Thursday. “They’re huge numbers. We already have a really large payroll to begin with. So we’re pursuing them, we’re pursuing other free agents in case they decide to go elsewhere.”

Kendrick became a Nat in 2018, lost most of the season to a torn Achilles tendon, regrouped in 2019 for a .966 OPS, and became one of the keys to the Nats’ postseason conquest. His National League Championship Series MVP was merely the roast beef between the slices of boutique bread he surrounded it with before and after. Kendrick makes opposing managers look silly.

He took complete advantage of Dodger manager Dave Roberts almost inexplicably leaving Joe Kelly in for a second relief inning and hit a monstrous top of the tenth grand slam to finish the postseason hopes of the team for whom he played in 2015-2016 following nine better than useful seasons as an Angel.

Then Astros manager A.J. Hinch confounded fans and no few analysts alike by reaching for Will Harris instead of Gerrit Cole, as Game Seven starter Zack Greinke’s tank ran past E following a homer to Rendon and a followup walk to Juan Soto. And Kendrick made what Harris himself called “a championship play for a championship team.” It was the right move (Cole never pitched in relief in his life) made wrong.

Harris threw Kendrick a nasty cutter traveling low and away, and Kendrick sent it on a high line the other way until it went bonk! off the right field foul pole. Kendrick’s shot gave the Nats the Game Seven lead they didn’t relinquish and himself the likelihood that he’ll never have to buy his own drinks in Washington again. And it got him his reward for 2020, where he’ll have all season to accept thanks and, just maybe, deliver enough timely swings to send the Nats toward a successful renewal of their lease to the Promised Land.

But what of Strasburg, their World Series MVP, their postseason lancer whose lifetime 1.46 postseason ERA and 2019 1.37 postseason ERA overall hoists as a big-game pitcher the still young man who was their highest-hyped pitching prospect ever? Who survived second-year Tommy John surgery and assorted injuries to come to become first a good, then an above average, and finally a genuinely great pitcher who thrives the best when the moment’s the biggest?

And what of Rendon, their third-place National League MVP finisher in 2019, whose 1.059 postseason OPS and 25 runs postseason runs produced on the way to the Nats’ World Series triumph was at least as valuable to that conquest? Not to mention a third baseman who’s improved in leaps each season at the plate and at the hot corner?

(Rendon’s OPS from 2017-2019: .952; his real batting average [total bases + walks + intentional walks + sacrifices + hit by pitches divided by total plate appearances] over the span: .630. His lifetime RBA so far: .562. Out of eight Hall of Fame third basemen whose careers happened in the post-World War II/post-integration/night ball era, only four are higher than Rendon, in ascending order: George Brett, Eddie Mathews, Chipper Jones, and Mike Schmidt.)

Kendrick threatened to become the face of the postseason early and often, but Strasburg, Rendon, Max Scherzer, Juan Soto, and Ryan Zimmerman are the arguable none-too-small faces of the Nats. They personify the agenda Thomas Boswell says should be the Nats’ pursuit: “preserving the team’s culture.”

Maybe since-departed (for Japan, where he’ll get to play more than part time) Gerardo Parra brought the Nats the Baby Shark and opened their can of fearless fun factor in 2019. Parra may be crossing the Pacific but nobody wants to dispense with the Baby Shark just yet. Maybe not ever.

Boswell says the Nats must weigh such value as Kendrick, Ryan Zimmerman, and “the versatile” Asdrubal Cabrera, Brian Dozier, Matt Adams, “and the modest but must-re-sign [Daniel] Hudson.” Sensibly enough.

But how about weighing the values of Strasburg and Rendon? And how about marrying those and the aforesaid values to an overall Nats culture of winning and having a blast doing it? No team in baseball was more plain fun to watch in 2019 than the Nats. Even the near-stoic Strasburg learned how to loosen up and shake a tail feather in the dugout.

Beware, Lerners. And general manager Mike Rizzo. You may think the Yankees have eyes for Strasburg, you may think the Phillies have likewise (remember what happened when you tried to get cute with Bryce Harper after 2018), but now the Angels may be laying in the weeds for him.

And that would be awfully tempting for Strasburg. Not just because there’d be a challenge for him in yanking their still-in-need-of-remodeling pitching staff into real competitiveness, but because they play an hour’s drive (assuming the traffic is decent, which is never a safe assumption in southern California) from Strasburg’s roots. Often as not in baseball you can go home again.

He’s not the only one with a California team pondering his presence. Rendon may be getting more than glances from the Dodgers he helped destroy in October. In fact, Strasburg and Rendon are both said to be on the Dodger radar, with incumbent Justin Turner willing to move to first base if Rendon becomes his new teammate. Beware, Nats. If you can’t or won’t keep them, the Dodgers might be only too happy to take them.

This would be called joining them if you can’t beat them. It was Strasburg who held down the fort in division series Game Five and didn’t let an early 3-0 Dodger lead knock him out of his zone. And it was Rendon who opened the game-tying top of the eighth, when Roberts gambled on Clayton Kershaw opening the inning, with a yank into the left field bleachers followed immediately by Soto’s yank into the opposite bleachers.

There’s only one thing that might hold the Dodgers back: luxury tax implications. That and that they’ve rarely handed out contracts for more than five years. And Strasburg and Rendon can leverage their southern California overtures when bargaining with other interested teams. (For Rendon, one is thought the Rangers, a homecoming for him as the Angels or Dodgers would be for Strasburg.)

Something to ponder, too, if the Nats let Strasburg and Rendon walk. Cole has suitors to burn, the Yankees in particular, reportedly, but then Scherzer did, too, a few years ago—and the Nats made him an offer he couldn’t refuse.

It’s not unrealistic to think that losing Strasburg and Rendon alike equals gaining Cole on the mound and, maybe, Josh Donaldson for third base. Donaldson’s still better than serviceable at age 33 and he’s a lot less expensive than Rendon, and Boswell notes that Donaldson’s would be a personality fit in the Nats’ clubhouse.

But losing either Strasburg or Rendon, never mind both, would lose a particular degree of Nats gravitas.

“What cannot and need not be lost is the culture that this Finish the Fight team brought to life,” Boswell concludes. “Rosters change. Lucky and luckless seasons both arrive. But once a team sees what values it wants to embody—and what kind of players and people make that possible—then that’s the lodestar to follow.”

Strasburg and Rendon are two of those players and two of those people. The Lerners may want to keep that very much in mind before they decide once and for all that saving a few bucks is just a little more pressing than keeping what’s already proven aboard.

Maybe Cole, Donaldson, and a couple of other imports would fit the Nat culture. Maybe they really won’t. It’s the crapshoot every great team joins every year, similar to reading the size label on the shirt you bought and discovering the label lied in one or another direction. But a good gambler knows the moment when pushing his or her luck means disaster.

It just might be worth every extra dollar for the Lerners not to push their luck this time. Especially with two franchise faces who just so happen to be far more than just a couple of franchise faces, and have been since the days they were baseball born in Nats jumpers. (Not to mention a third, Zimmerman, who’s been a Nat since the day they were re-born in Washington, and would settle for one more year at a reasonable rate for a part-timer who just can’t hang it up quite yet.)

Contrary to what the giddoff-mah-lawn baseball romantics like to think, loyalty was never a prime baseball commodity. Not before the free agency era, not since, and not exclusively on the players’ sides. (Yes, Mr. Thurber, we can look it up.) This time, the Lerners have a splendid chance to show some to two of the guys who stayed the course and finally helped them reach the Promised Land.

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