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Nationals make wise investment in signing Stephen Strasburg

For all those teams saving up their money to make a run at Stephen Strasburg, well ...

Strasburg was expected to be the top free-agent pitcher this winter, but has instead agreed to a seven-year, $175 million extension with the Washington Nationals. ESPN.com's Eddie Matz reports the deal will include a rolling opt-out clause after the third or fourth year. Since Strasburg is a Scott Boras client, most expected Strasburg to test the market like other Boras players, but that opt-out clause is undoubtedly a big reason Strasburg was willing to sign this extension. If he gets hurt or pitches poorly, he can just take his Nationals' money; if he pitches well, he can still hit free agency when he's 30 or 31 and get another big deal if he desires.

Strasburg does remain a bit of an enigma, which admittedly is a little unfair, a byproduct of being one of the most hyped pitching prospects ever. He's been a very good pitcher, but nevertheless has pitched 200 innings just once in four seasons since returning from Tommy John surgery and has never posted an ERA under 3.00 in a full season. Since 2012, there have been 56 different pitcher seasons where a qualified starter posted an ERA under 3.00. Heck, a Nationals pitcher has done it six times; none of those was Strasburg. On the other hand, among pitchers with at least 300 innings since 2012, Strasburg ranks fifth in strikeout rate, a testament to his stuff that remains electric.

Strasburg has issues -- but remember, these are minor issues, and if he works on them, he’ll be a Cy Young contender and legit No. 1 starter. These issues include:

A. Allowing more damage with runners on base (.254 batting average allowed in his career versus .212 with the bases empty, while his strikeout-walk ratio drops from 5.18 with the bases empty to 3.99).

B. Getting hit hard in hitter's counts. Again going back to 2012, Strasburg ranks fifth out of 130 starters in wOBA allowed in pitcher's counts, but 99th out of 125 starters in wOBA allowed in hitter's counts. I had to use different batters-faced totals for the cutoff, so it's not the exact same list of pitchers, but you get the idea: When he gets ahead in the count, he's lights-out; when he falls behind, he becomes hittable, relying too much on trying to blow hitters away with his fastball.

We saw a similar scenario unfold in Monday's game; the Nationals defeated the Tigers 5-4 on Clint Robinson's walk-off home run. Strasburg struck out 11 in seven-plus innings -- but gave up home runs to Nick Castellanos and J.D. Martinez, both with a runner on base. Castellanos homered off a 1-1 fastball, while Martinez homered off a 3-1 fastball.

The Nationals certainly appear to be set long term in their rotation:

Max Scherzer: Signed through 2021

Stephen Strasburg: Signed through 2023 (not including opt-out)

Joe Ross: Under team control through 2021

Gio Gonzalez: Signed through 2017 with 2018 vesting option

Tanner Roark: Under team control through 2019

Lucas Giolito: Top pitching prospect in the minors

That's a group that should keep the Nationals in contention for years to come, especially if Giolito -- who should make his debut sometime this season -- hits on his potential.

There is a sidebar here, however: In 2019, Scherzer's salary jumps up to $37 million; Strasburg will be making $25 million or so. Will that leave money to sign a certain right fielder who will happen to hit free agency after the 2018 season?

In a sense, that's almost a nonissue for the Nationals. They have no idea whether Bryce Harper will re-sign with them, let alone what kind of end-of-the-world money he'll get offered from the Yankees or Dodgers. You can't plan a future expecting to sign Harper. You can only control what you can control. So I don't think this signing has anything to do with Harper. It is fair to ask: With Giolito ready to hit the rotation, would they have been wiser to let Strasburg walk and use that $25 million on a hitter? You know, maybe somebody to hit behind Harper so he doesn't keep getting walked?

The free-agent market for position players next year, however, is nearly as weak as the pitching market, so the Nationals are better off investing their money in a known quantity like Strasburg. Is he worth $175 million? A guy who's pitched eight innings just nine times in 139 career starts?

Hey, that's the going rate these days for a stud starter. The Nationals are betting on Strasburg's prime years and on good health. I'd like to see him pitch more innings and learn to pitch a little more, but the indicators all point to a guy who should be one of baseball's better starters the next five years.