The World Series champion Nationals prioritized re-signing right-hander Stephen Strasburg over third baseman Anthony Rendon. The downtrodden Angels entered the Winter Meetings willing to turn to Rendon, the top hitter on the market but not an obvious need, if their initial plans to sign Strasburg or Gerrit Cole fell through.
Each decision was fascinating.
Washington kept intact the starting trio of Strasburg, Max Scherzer and Patrick Corbin, which contributed so heavily to its World Series surge this October. The trade-off for the Nationals, of course, is a glaring hole at third base where their 2019 MVP candidate once resided.
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Los Angeles ensured it has something to show for its offseason, and it now carries an elite player to complement Mike Trout in its lineup. The trade-off here is that the Rendon contract could give the Angels reason not to bring in a superstar, mega-deal pitcher next offseason or the one after that despite a barren rotation set up to fail. They will pay Albert Pujols $30 million in 2021, Justin Upton $23 million in 2021 and $28 million in 2022, and Trout $37 million annually for the foreseeable future.
Rendon’s deal is for seven years and $245 million without any money deferred. Strasburg’s deal is for seven years and $245 million with about $80 million deferred.
How each star performs in the coming years will be a major determinant in whether the Nationals make another title run and the Angels regain relevance in the AL West.
Traditional baseball thought usually favors long-term deals for hitters over pitchers. A recent uptick in arm-related injuries underscores the inherent risk in paying a hurler gobs of money into their 30s. Strasburg has not been immune to injuries in his career. In fact, his setbacks have been one of the only things stopping him from being considered the best pitcher of his generation.
Risk is not the worst thing for the Nationals following their World Series triumph, though, especially when it comes to an uber-talented individual such as Strasburg. Washington is betting that retaining its rotation is the best way to return to late October, and despite newfound lineup concerns, it’s tough to argue with that premise. Plus, the deferred payments to Strasburg mitigate some of his deal’s danger.
General manager Mike Rizzo, who said earlier in the offseason that he didn’t expect he could sign both Rendon and Strasburg, is now tasked with finding a replacement for the club’s longtime third baseman. Josh Donaldson is the splashiest free-agent option still available. Less expensive options such as Maikel Franco or Todd Frazier are possible backup plans. Kris Bryant (Cubs), Nolan Arenado (Rockies) and Miguel Andujar (Yankees) are all rumored to be available to varying degrees via trade, though the Nationals have graduated most of their best prospects in recent seasons and may not have sufficient pieces to send the other way.
Regardless of where Washington moves next, its offense will be heavily reliant on the continued growth of young outfielders Juan Soto, 21, and Victor Robles, 22. Soto has one of the most mature plate approaches for his age in the history of the game and mashed five postseason home runs. Robles is a defensive wizard who has demonstrated enough offensive potential to think he could become an All-Star. The duo largely holds the fate of an otherwise middle-of-the-road lineup barring a substantial add at the hot corner.
Live look at the Nationals’ lineup:
C — Suzuki/Gomes
1B — Howie Kendrick
2B — Kendrick/Kieboom
SS — Trea Turner
LF — Juan Soto
CF — Victor Robles
RF — Adam Eaton
— Jesse Dougherty (@dougherty_jesse) December 12, 2019
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The Angels, meanwhile, are banking on becoming an offensive juggernaut. Trout and Rendon are right away perhaps the best offensive duo in baseball. Shohei Ohtani will apply additional thunder to the middle of the order. Top prospect Jo Adell is expected to break through and serve as a top-of-the-lineup threat. Tommy La Stella could provide some pop, though it remains to be seen whether his torrid start to 2019 was a mirage. And one of Pujols and Upton, disappointing as they’ve become, could perhaps step up to provide league average offensive production.
Los Angeles’ offense must be a force for the club to contend. If it isn’t one of the best in the AL, and a rotation that posted the second-worst ERA in baseball this past year (5.64) remains unaddressed, the team will probably slide to a fifth straight losing season.
For now, the Angels and Nationals seem excited about their respective free-agent moves. Trout signaled his approval Wednesday night on Twitter, while Washington shortstop Trea Turner did the same when Strasburg re-signed in the nation’s capital Monday.
There could be second-guessing in the not-so-distant future for each side, but any intriguing gambit carries its drawbacks. These maneuvers will be especially fun to watch play out.