SNIDER: Nats made right move in Strasburg over Harper

Rick Snider
June 08, 2020 - 3:34 pm

The Nationals made the right choice when paying Stephen Strasburg a king's ransom to stay while letting Bryce Harper depart. On the 10th anniversary of his 14-strikeout debut, Strasburg has proven the more valuable of the consecutive first-round selections.

They were supposed to be the cornerstones of the franchise after consecutive 100-plus loss seasons in 2008-09 netted the first overall selections in consecutive drafts. Strasburg came first in 2009 and reached the majors the next season. Harper followed in 2010 and joined Strasburg with the Nationals in 2012.

That first season together began the Nats' run of four NL East titles over six years – 98 victories with Strasburg going 15-6 and Harper winning NL Rookie of the Year. But the Nats' decision to shut down Strasburg in late September rather than extending his innings limit decided in spring training caused him to miss the playoffs that ended in the first round. It will always be debatable whether the Nats missed a championship chance in 2012 and it took seven years to find the partial answer.

Strasburg was a consistently good performer, including 15-4 marks in 2016-17 when making the All-Star Games. But, injuries were always lurking and he was just 10-7 in 22 games in 2018. After re-signing Strasburg for $175 million in May 2016, it seemed the Nats might just be paying for a good arm, but not their best, behind Max Scherzer.

And then 2019 came along. Harper was now in Philadelphia after a $330 million contract over 13 years. Six all-star appearances and a 2015 NL Most Valuable Player Award combined for too much money for the Nats owners to pay, especially with other budding stars on the team. The hard decision to let Harper go wasn't really that hard, though losing him to a division foe made it sting more.

Harper delivered 35 homers and 114 RBI in Philadelphia, but also a .260 average with a career-worst 178 strikeouts. Meanwhile, Strasburg finished 18-6 with an NL-best 209 innings before his historic postseason run.

The Nats chose to pay a pitcher impacting about 30 games annually over an everyday player and it merited the 2019 World Series championship.

Now Washington knows it made the right choice. Indeed, the Nats doubled down on Strasburg once more in December with a record-setting deal for a pitcher in $245 million over seven years. Nothing like going 5-0 in the playoffs with a 1.98 ERA and 47 strikeouts to win the World Series to earn another monster payday.

That first game was astonishing. I remember leaving Nationals Park thinking for once, a marquee player was as good as promised. Harper never quite reached his Mickey Mantle label, but Strasburg is now among the game's dominant pitchers.

It took a decade to end the debate over Strasburg-Harper. At least the Nats were on the right side of it.

Rick Snider has covered Washington sports since 1978. Follow him on Twitter: @Snide_Remarks