Signing Strasburg long term feels like no sure thing. The consensus "generational" talent has turned into a very good pitcher, certainly top of a rotation worthy, but has not developed into a special player. At least it doesn't feel like he has. What do the stats say?
Strasburg threw 215 innings last year (14th in majors) and put up an ERA of 3.14 (25th). He tied for the NL lead in strikeouts with 242 and he ended up with 14 wins, good enough for T25th in the majors. (exactly the same number as everyone's "ace" Jordan Zimmermann). Without any digging, you see a guy who is a legit #1 type.
If we go a bit further we see a WHIP that was 17th in the majors, a xFIP (kind of like ERA taking out errors and bad timing) that was 13th in the majors. Nothing derailing the initial supposition. Let's keep going into stats that might show he was lucky last year.
BABIP : .315 slightly on the high side both overall and for him. Should drop.
HR/FB : 13.1% Same as BABIP.
LOB% : 74.8% Pretty much on target
GB% : 45.9% Down from last year but better than the average pitcher. Though this is the stat that arguably corresponds least with performance.
K%-BB% : 22.9% 4th best in majors - not a fluke either similar to other years.
No surprise, but nothing here says last year was a fluke. In fact, it says we should probably expect a slight improvement in ERA/Wins if all goes to plan. So what's the problem?
Well, with that last stat, K%-BB%, you start to get a feel for why people are disappointed in Strasburg. That last stat screams "as good as anyone not named Kershaw" as the other names up there are a who's who of guys who would challenge for Top 5 spots; Sale, Price, Kluber, King Felix, Scherzer, Bumgarner, Greinke; but Strasburg doesn't put himself in the top 5 instead settling in the Top 20. Or does he?
In the past 3 years it can be easily argued that only a handful of pitchers have really outpitched Strasburg. Kershaw, King Felix, Scherzer, Price, Wainwright. Maybe Sale. Not ZNN - not over the three. Based on "on the field" results, he should be thought of at least as a Top 10 guy. But while every year Strasburg succeeds in the battle versus hitters, every year Strasburg fails miserably in the perception battle.
- In 2012 he was great, but wasn't the best on the team (Gio had his best year) and there was the whole shutdown thing.
- In 2013 he was very good, but while bad luck was taking him to an 8-9 record (13th lowest run support) and the team was missing the playoffs, Kershaw was entrenching himself as the best pitcher of this generation and the two new hot pitchers that came around were both in his division (Matt Harvey and Jose Fernandez).
- In 2014 he was arguably great again, but again was not the best pitcher on his team (this time ZNN would take a step up) and he'd spend most of the season struggling to get his win record to match his performance. He was 8-10 as late as Aug 8th before winning 6 of his last 9.
Of course, the feelings about Strasburg are not completely crazy. There does always seem to be something about Strasburg that shouldn't be. This year he oddly couldn't finish batters off if they battled back to an even count. In the past some though he might be rattled by what happened behind him (I showed that wasn't the case in 2014 - but haven't looked at past years.) He's spent time learning new pitches that haven't seem to benefit him on the mound. He's "complained" about heat or the mound or what have you. These things though would probably be ignored or certainly downplayed if we had a different view of Strasburg. Instead they are used to confirm thoughts we already had. "He's not an ace. Here's why."
Still, I don't want to make it seem like Strasburg is a no doubt about it re-sign. Along with the issues I just pointed out his fastball speed is declining. Right now it's not an issue because his fastball was so fast to begin with (97.6 average in 2010) but it's gone down every year. If it doesn't stabilize he'll eventually run into bigger issues. Sure that probably wouldn't be for a few more years but I'd expect his next contract would be a LONG term one so definitely by the end of that. However, there are far more things right with Strasburg than wrong.
The other thing to note is that Strasburg is still young. Over two years younger than ZNN, younger than most of the names above. Additionally, Sale, Bumgarner and Harvey are all younger but within a year (ok within 380 days). Only Jose Fernandez stands out as noticeably younger.
Put it all together and you have a Top 10 pitcher who is young has been healthy the past 3 seasons. Much like Zimmermann he hasn't been worked that hard, and he doesn't work himself that hard (pitches per inning is low). I don't see an issue here. You basically can take what I said about ZNN and replace "consistency" with "some potential still left" and knock the age down.
I say you sign him. You wrap up ZNN and you wrap up Strasburg and you let them and Roark or Giolito or whoever carry the team for at least the next 3-4 seasons. Not only do you sign him but you sign him now because I don't believe he's likely to put up a worse season and he may in fact put up a better one. What could now be 7/180 (eating up one arb year) could become 7/200+ after a 2.50 ERA 20 win ish season.
Of course you may disagree. It's a hell of a lot of money, especially presumably signing ZNN as well, but understand this, as far as free agent pitchers go, it's going to be difficult to find two guys on the market who have as much going for them and importantly, are as young, as Jordan Zimmermann and Stephen Strasburg. Those guys tend to get locked up because their talent and age combination is rare. I would recommend the Nats do the same.
However I'm not going to kill the Nats if they end up signing one and not the other. I don't like it as much, but perhaps they have strong feelings toward one and lukewarm feelings toward the other. Pitcher contracts are the biggest gambles understanding how often they get injured and how that can derail them for years. They could gamble on not signing one and bet that Giolito becomes an impact starter (one of the best bets in minor league pitching currently) and that Cole/Fedde/Ross/? becomes a good starter. Use that extra money to keep Bryce or get more offense or something. It's a plan that may fit better with the imagined salary ceiling we expect they have.
The issue comes if they don't sign either. Again if you ranked "sure things" on the FA starting pitching market in the past decade these two guys would rank very high. If they don't sign either - well I can't see them signing anyone ever. Giolito becomes a star? Great - don't buy a jersey though because he's out the door. Rotation falls apart because of injury or lack of development? Hope you like Haren/Jackson esque one year value deals. It sets a disturbing precedent that says the Nats' fortunes at any one point hinges entirely on being able to develop a top rotation from scratch. It took a lot of things to get the Nats to have the rotation that they had for the past 3 seasons. ZNN developed slowly, while their #1 pick Stras developed fast so they set-up at the same time. Gio blossomed. Detwiler was a surprise in 2012, Roark in 2014. Dombrowski went insane for a day. It's doubtful things will come together so nicely to form a good 3-4 year window again.
An interesting alternative would be dealing Strasburg. He has value before this season with 2 years under control. But I'm doubtful the Nats can afford to do that this year and with Gio declining and Fister gone, they almost certainly can't next year; ZNN or no ZNN. Of course that is a plan though. Sign ZNN trade Stras try to bounce back in 2017 or trade ZNN, trade Stras try to be a force in 2017 and beyond. These are plans but they should be plans for teams like the Rays, right? Certainly that last one, right?
The Nats don't have to sign ZNN. They don't have to sign Strasburg. There are plans that can work with either of them gone. But is there a plan that works with both of them gone and no similar FA types in their place? I just don't see it.