Cubs free agent focus: Stephen Strasburg


With Hot Stove season underway, NBC Sports Chicago is taking a look at some of MLB’s top free agents and how they’d fit with the Cubs.

If Gerrit Cole is the No. 1 starting pitcher on the free agent market, Stephen Strasburg is 1-B. And like Cole, Strasburg is going to get paid handsomely this winter.

Strasburg opted out of his contract three days after the Nationals’ clinched the 2019 World Series — their first title in franchise history. Consequentially, the 31-year-old is forgoing the remaining four years and $100 million of the seven-year, $175 million extension he signed with the Nationals in May 2016.

Strasburg opting out doesn’t eliminate a possible return to the Nationals, but the move is a smart business decision on his part. He's earned a contract exceeding $200 million following a stellar 2019 in which he reaffirmed his status as one of the best pitchers in baseball. His numbers:

2019 regular season: 33 starts, 209 innings (first in NL), 3.32 ERA (2.91 in 15 second-half starts), 251 K
2019 postseason: 6 games (5 starts), 36 1/3 innings, 1.98 ERA, 47 K

In nine career postseason games (eight starts), Strasburg holds a 1.46 ERA with 71 strikeouts in 55 1/3 innings. In short, he’ll have no shortage of suitors on the open market.

Like last winter, the Cubs are in a tight position financially. Roster Resource estimates their 2020 luxury tax payroll will be nearly $220 million, excluding any potential offseason moves the North Siders make. 

[RELATED: Where Cubs payroll stands as 2020 offseason ramps up]

Would the Cubs be willing to go deep into the luxury tax to sign Strasburg? Make no mistake, signing elite starting pitchers in their 30s to lucrative deals is a risk. There’s no telling how long they’ll pitch at a high level, and in the Cubs’ case specifically, Strasburg would put a major dent in their payroll. This would severely affect their ability to address other needs this offseason, such as second base, center field, the bullpen and the rotation.

However, Strasburg would give the Cubs a formidable rotation trio — alongside Yu Darvish and Kyle Hendricks — to rival most teams in baseball. Admittedly, this is assuming Darvish puts together a full season equivalent to his 2019 second half and Hendricks finds a solution to his 2019 road woes.

The Cubs have infamously struggled to develop homegrown pitching under team president Theo Epstein and have pieced their rotation together via trades and free agency as a result. The organization hopes Adbert Alzolay will be a future rotation mainstay, but the 24-year-old has barely scratched the big-league surface. The Cubs have several rotation questions to answer in the not-so-distant future regardless:

-Cole Hamels is a free agent
-Tyler Chatwood, Jon Lester and José Quintana are signed through 2020
-Yu Darvish and Kyle Hendricks are signed through 2023 

Note: Lester has a vesting option for 2021, should he pitch 200 innings in 2020 or 400 combined from 2019-20. Hendricks has a vesting option for 2024 if he finished in the top 3 of the 2020 Cy Young Award voting. Otherwise, it becomes a team option.

Besides pitching, Javier Báez, Kris Bryant, Anthony Rizzo (team option) and Kyle Schwarber are all set to hit free agency after 2021. Retaining each of those players is unrealistic, but the Cubs will need to have payroll space for a few of them, at the least.

Strasburg could help stabilize the Cubs rotation going forward, and money is coming off the books in the next few seasons. But signing him would impact the Cubs' ability to address other roster needs this winter and beyond. He's earned a lucrative contract, but fitting that on the Cubs payroll would be extremely tough to do.

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