To those saying D.C. is done once its former MVP hits free agency next winter, we present Max Scherzer and Stephen Strasburg. And there are a few other reasons the Nationals’ window won’t necessarily slam shut.
So, about that window.
You know, that Washington Nationals window everyone has been talking about. The supposedly small window that will slam shut at the end of the 2018 season, when Bryce Harper becomes a free agent and the Nationals will suddenly no longer be the World Series contender they’ve been these past few years. The same tiny window that led the Nats to part ways with manager Dusty Baker — he of the 192 wins and two division titles — because mere pennants are no longer enough.
It’s a myth, that window. Because of the 2017 Cy Young voting.
In case you didn’t hear, Max Scherzer won the NL Cy Young Award on Wednesday, the second straight season he’s done so and the third time in five years he’s been named the best pitcher in his league. Scherzer became just the 10th hurler in MLB history to win at least three Cy Young awards, in the process giving his future Hall of Fame candidacy a serious boost (of the other nine, only Roger Clemens and Clayton Kershaw are not enshrined in Cooperstown). He also further cemented his status as one of the game’s most dominant starters.
Another one of the game’s most dominant starters? That’d be Scherzer’s teammate, Stephen Strasburg, who finished third in the Cy Young voting and put together one of the most overpowering second halves ever. Just how good was Strasburg? His 0.86 ERA after the All-Star break was the second lowest ever by a starter in the second half of a season (min. 10 starts). Over his last 61 2/3 innings pitched, including two playoff starts, Strasburg allowed earned runs just once — a three-run frame in late September. Aside from that one inning, the Nats’ other ace put up a string of zeroes.
Obviously, Strasburg won’t continue to crank out donuts as if he were working the morning shift at Krispy Kreme. But at age 29, he finally seems to have put it together. After going to the stretch full-time last season in an effort to repeat his mechanics more consistently, he seems to have figured out how to stay a little bit healthier. He has figured out that a heavier dose of offspeed stuff, especially early in the count, makes his electric fastball seem a little more electric. Best of all for Washington, he has figured it out just one year into a seven-year contract that calls for him to remain in D.C. through the 2023 season. Meanwhile, the seven-year pact Scherzer inked in 2015 will keep him in a Nats uni through 2021.
If you’re scoring at home, that’s four more years of Scherzer and Strasburg, a term folks in the nation’s capital would gladly vote for, if such things were determined that way. But they’re not. Instead, they’re determined by a shrewd front office that, in securing both of these two stud hurlers to seven-year deals, has ensured Washington’s World Series window will stay open well past the 2018 season.
That’s not to say there isn’t risk involved when it comes to the Nationals’ 1a and 1b. First and foremost, there’s no guarantee Scherzer, who turned 33 in July, then promptly hit the disabled list for the first time since coming to D.C., will remain the workhorse he has been. There’s even less guarantee that Strasburg, a Tommy John survivor who has topped 30 starts just once in his career, will stay healthy. If he does, there’s a sporting chance he could leverage his value by exercising the opt-out clause in his contract following the 2019 season. But as long as Strasburg stays in Washington alongside Scherzer, the window stays open. Wide open. Because pitching wins championships.
Hitting helps win titles, too, and the Nats have plenty of that also. Will they feel the loss of Harper, should he decide to sign elsewhere a year from now? Absolutely. Will they miss slugging second baseman Daniel Murphy (also a member of next year’s free-agent class) if he ditches The District? No doubt. But let’s not forget about Anthony Rendon, Trea Turner, Adam Eaton and NLDS star Michael Taylor, all of whom are under contract beyond the 2018 season. Let’s not forget about stud outfield prospect Victor Robles, who was impressive enough in September to earn a playoff roster spot and would likely step in for Harper if Washington doesn’t re-sign the former MVP. Oh, and let’s not forget the Nats have affordable team options on closer Sean Doolittle that could (and should) keep him in town for another few years.
So yeah, the Nats’ nucleus is alive and well, and not just for one more year. At the center of that nucleus are Scherzer and Strasburg, fresh off their gold and bronze in the Cy Young balloting. Washington would do well to take those metaphoric medals and meld them into a single indestructible alloy rod — the kind that could prevent even the heaviest window in the world from shutting.