Two days, two massive contracts. Just one day after the Washington Nationals signed Stephen Strasburg to a seven-year, $245 million deal to make him the highest-paid pitcher in MLB history, Gerrit Cole took over that title with a fresh new nine-year, $324 million contract with the New York Yankees. At a combined $569 million, baseball’s two best pitching free agents just received a commitment of over half of a billion dollars.
There’s no question that Strasburg and Cole earned their big raises with their performances in 2019. But these contracts stretch deep into the 2020s and into these players’ 30s. When the dust settles, will these two aces live up to their new contracts?
Injury concerns are the main issue for Stephen Strasburg
Stephen Strasburg will forever live in Washington Nationals lore for his brilliant performance in the 2019 postseason. The Nationals won all six games that he pitched in, and he produced a dazzling 1.98 ERA, 1.05 WHIP, and 47 strikeouts in 36.1 innings pitched. And the bulk of these innings came against the Los Angeles Dodgers and Houston Astros; the two best teams of the regular season in 2019.
Unhindered by injuries, Strasburg pitched for over 200 innings during the regular season for the first time since 2014 last season. In 209 innings, he recorded a 3.32 ERA, a 1.04 WHIP, and a 6.3 WAR (wins against replacement), finishing in sixth place among starting pitchers in WAR. Before 2019, the Nationals ace had averaged only 145 innings per season over the last four years.
This injury history is a legitimate concern for someone getting paid the type of money Strasburg is to be a consistent presence all season long. But there is a silver lining to it; we’ve already seen that Stephen Strasburg is still an elite pitcher even after his top-level fastball speed has left him. There are signs that the 31-year-old improved last season with new adjustments to his game, so there seems to be a good chance that what we see out of Strasburg now is what we’ll continue to see out of him in the future.
When he’s healthy, that is. His overall health and production level are going to make or break this deal, and are unfortunately impossible to predict.
Both contracts were worth the gamble
Gerrit Cole went 20-5 during the regular season in 2019. He finished second in the league in wins, third in ERA (2.50), second in WHIP (0.89), and first in strikeouts with 326 over 212.1 innings. Cole was virtually un-hittable after the All-Star break, going 11-0 over 14 starts with a sensational 1.79 ERA and a 0.74 WHIP. He carried this success into the postseason with a 1.72 ERA and a 0.87 WHIP across his five starts.
At just 29 years old and entering this free agency period off of three straight healthy and productive seasons, there aren’t really any red flags around Cole. He’s clearly an elite ace, and there’s no reason to believe that he won’t continue to be one in New York.
The only concern here is the nine-year term. Nine years is an awfully long time, and while some aces pitch well into their 30s without losing heat on their fastball, some see rapid declines out of nowhere. The Yankees know this from experience; they made CC Sabathia the highest-paid pitcher in baseball back in 2008, fresh off of a nearly un-hittable run with the Milwaukee Brewers. He was effective early in his Yankees career, but as his fastball’s speed declined, his overall performance did too.
Time will tell if these contracts pan out
Gerrit Cole getting paid tons of money was inevitable. He has no recent injury history, he’s young, and an argument could be made that he’s the best pitcher in baseball, or at the very least close. Even if Cole starts to decline and winds up being overpaid in the second half of this contract, he’s likely to provide enough elite-level pitching at the front of it to still be considered a success.
Stephen Strasburg’s contract feels a bit more like a reward for the past instead of an investment in the future. The risk of injury is always looming, and who knows how much another injury might affect his performance? A healthy Strasburg would have no trouble giving the Nationals their money’s worth on this contract, but the health is far from a guarantee.
Still, you can’t blame the Nationals. After losing Bryce Harper last year and Anthony Rendon this year, keeping an iconic fan-favorite that wants to resign in town is good business, even if there is risk involved.