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SportsColumnistsDavid Lennon

Stephen Strasburg deal not necessarily a lesson for Mets

Pitcher Stephen Strasburg of the Washington Nationals delivers

Pitcher Stephen Strasburg of the Washington Nationals delivers a pitch against the New York Mets during the first inning of a game at Citi Field on May 19, 2016. Photo Credit: Getty Images / Rich Schultz

The Mets aren’t as worried about someday signing Matt Harvey as they are about fixing him, a not-so-small matter that has come to light during the first six weeks of this season. But if they were peeking ahead to the winter of 2018, Harvey’s first plunge into free agency, what transpired in Washington last week would have received greater attention in Flushing.

Stephen Strasburg was supposed to be the jewel of this winter’s free-agent class, and with Scott Boras his agent, we pretty much figured it was a slam dunk for him to be on the market.

Sure, Boras has a cozy business relationship with the deep-pocketed Nationals, who currently employ eight of his well-compensated clients on their 25-man roster. But maybe we underestimated just how tight Strasburg himself is with the organization that made him the No. 1 overall pick in the 2009 draft.

When that bond was tested in 2012, during Strasburg’s first full season back from Tommy John surgery, the Nationals made the controversial move of shutting him down at 159 1⁄3 innings and keeping him out of the playoffs. General manager Mike Rizzo took a ton of heat at the time, but he explained that the team was following the same protocol it applied to Jordan Zimmermann before him.

Unlike with Zimmermann, however, the Nationals quietly worked behind the scenes to lock up Strasburg long-term, which they recently did with a seven-year, $175-million deal. At last week’s news conference, Strasburg told reporters that the 2012 shutdown was “a tough pill to swallow” but added, “You have to look at what their intentions are. And I think their intentions are that it’s an investment, and they want me to be here pitching at a high level for a long time.”

Could the Nationals have nudged Strasburg over that 160-inning threshold? Probably. Coming up with a number for that first post-TJ season has been an inexact science.

For Harvey, the initial limit was 180 innings. But after much discussion, along with the media inferno stoked by both the Mets and Boras, Harvey was permitted to pitch in the postseason. He stretched himself to 216 innings, with the last month being the most stressful of the year.

Not to mention the final start, in Game 5 of the World Series, made infamous by Terry Collins’ decision to send a brilliant Harvey back out for the ill-fated ninth.

Is Harvey suffering now for being maxed out in 2015? That’s impossible to say with any certainty. But with the skyrocketing cost of building a rotation in this era, it is interesting to note how differently Strasburg and Harvey were handled by their teams.

No. 1 is player’s health

Rizzo was a little reluctant to revisit the Strasburg shutdown, saying the subject “has been beaten to death.” That’s understandable. But he did expound on it, as the matter might have impacted Strasburg’s decision to re-up with the Nats. After all, that came off as a coup for the front office.

“First and foremost is the player’s health, and we take care of our players,” Rizzo said Thursday at Citi Field. “He wasn’t the first guy we did that to. He won’t be the last. That’s the protocol that we adhere to here, and if it helps us to sign our players long-term, that’s a great byproduct of it.

“I’m glad it worked out with Stras and worked out with Jordan Zimmermann also. But that’s how we do business here.”

For Zimmermann, who was capped at 161 1⁄3 innings in 2011, his first season back from surgery, the payoff came in Detroit rather than D.C. as the Tigers signed him to a five-year, $110-million deal last November.

These days, with the increasingly fragile nature of pitchers, Zimmermann’s contract seems to be ideal from a team’s standpoint, the perfect length for one who turns 30 this week. But when it comes to assembling a rotation, there are many moving pieces, and the Nationals had much bigger ideas with Zimmermann heading into his walk year. Instead of working to sign the homegrown Zimmermann, Rizzo lured Max Scherzer — another Boras client — with a seven-year, $210-million deal.

“We have budgets that we all have to adhere to,” Rizzo said. “But there’s a long-term plan in mind. That’s what makes it work. There’s a one- and a three- and a five-year plan in place at all times, and then the secret is to develop your own as much as possible.”

Mets cost-efficient

The Nationals do have some cost-efficient up-and-comers in Joe Ross and Tanner Roark, who help make their rotation, ranked second overall with a 2.93 ERA, less expensive than a handful of others. The Cubs’ starting corps is baseball’s best, with a 2.41 ERA, but comes with a $61.24-million tab. By our calculations, using salaries provided by Baseball Prospectus, only three teams have invested more in their 2016 rotation than the Cubs: the Giants ($74.08 million), the Tigers ($71.2 million) and the Red Sox ($64.04 million).

Obviously, these are all teams with vast financial resources, willing to spend significant cash on pitchers when necessary. At the other end of that spectrum, however, is the Mets, who are sitting with a staff packed with cheap aces years away from a Strasburg-type payday. This season, the Mets are paying $13.24 million for their entire rotation, less than 25 starting pitchers — individually — are earning in 2016. Only four teams are spending a lower sum on their ’16 rotation: the Rays ($12.69 million), the Indians ($12.50 million), the A’s ($11.64 million) and the mail-it-in Braves ($7.39 million).

The Mets are reaping the benefit of draft picks and clever trades, as their highest-paid starting pitcher is the only one they haven’t developed: the 42-year-old Bartolo Colon, who is making $7.25 million. Harvey, in his second year of arbitration, earns $4.33 million. The others, with less than three years of service time, are subject to a salary scale, with any raises coming at the team’s discretion.

Rizzo played under those rules with Strasburg before opening the checkbook last week. As for the Mets and Harvey, they don’t seem to be headed toward a similar resolution at this stage of his career. But with the price tags on these pitchers, it’s not as if teams can keep them all anyway, and hard decisions must be made.

“You control your own destiny with the pitching by drafting and signing and developing your own,” Rizzo said. “That gives you the long window that you’re looking for. Then you have to try to make the most prudent move that you can as far as if you go after some free agents to build upon. That’s the part that you have to figure into this long-term viability.”

MAKING THEIR PITCH

With starting pitchers the most precious commodity in baseball, building an elite rotation can be expensive. But spending money doesn’t guarantee success, either. Here’s a breakdown by team, ERA, annual total salary paid to rotation (with total team salary), and the team’s top-paid starter (with his salary), (figures calculated based on salaries provided by Baseball Prospectus).

1. Cubs .......... 2.41 ERA ... $61.24M ($171.61M) ... Jon Lester ($25.0M)

2. Nationals ... 2.93 ........... $45.70M ($145.17) ... Max Scherzer ($22.14)

3. White Sox .. 3.39 ........... $33.81M ($114.49) ... John Danks ($15.75)*

4. Mariners .... 3.50 ........... $43.90M ($141.83) .. Felix Hernandez ($25.85)

5. Dodgers ..... 3.52 ........... $51.29M ($249.78) ... Clayton Kershaw ($34.57)

6. METS ........ 3.54 ........... $13.24M ($135.18) .... Bartolo Colon ($7.25)

7. Rangers ..... 3.61 ............ $52.50M ($158.95) ... Cole Hamels ($23.50)

8. Blue Jays ... 3.63 ........... $34.53M ($136.78) ... R.A. Dickey ($12.0)

9. Phillies ....... 3.72 ........... $16.55M ($88.64) ..... Charlie Morton ($8.0)

10. Padres ...... 3.73 ........... $30.41M ($99.28) ..... James Shields ($21.0)

11. Rays .......... 3.74 .......... $12.69M ($66.68) ...... Matt Moore ($5.10)

12. Giants ...... 3.85 .......... $74.08M ($172.08) ..... Matt Cain ($20.83)

13. Indians .... 3.91 ........... $12.50M ($96.30) ....... Corey Kluber ($4.70)

14. Marlins .... 4.08 .......... $19.71M ($74.36) ........ Wei-Yin Chen ($12.50)

15. Cardinals .. 4.16 .......... $44.08M ($145.55) ...... Adam Wainwright ($19.50)

16. Orioles ..... 4.43 ....... $29.27M ($147.69) ........... Ubaldo Jimenez ($13.0)

17. Pirates ...... 4.45 ....... $29.30M ($99.95) ............ Francisco Liriano ($13.67)

18. Braves ....... 4.61 ....... $7.39M ($86.58) .............. Julio Teheran ($3.47)

19. Angels ....... 4.68 ...... $52.53M ($164.67) ........... C.J. Wilson ($20.50)#

20. Red Sox .... 4.74 ...... $64.04M ($197.89) .......... David Price ($30.0)

21. Royals ....... 4.75 ....... $27.95M ($131.49) ........... Edinson Volquez ($9.50)

22. Tigers ....... 4.77 ....... $71.20M ($198.59) .......... Justin Verlander ($28.0)

23. D-Backs .... 4.86 ....... $43.75M ($98.17) ........... Zack Greinke ($34.0)

24. YANKEES .. 4.91 ...... $57.42M ($225.98) ........ CC Sabathia ($25.0)

25. Reds ........... 4.92 ...... $24.27M ($89.87) ............. Homer Bailey ($18.0)#

26. Twins ......... 4.97 ....... $35.63M ($105.33) ........... Ervin Santana ($13.50)

27. Astros ......... 4.97 ....... $23.30M ($96.89) ............ Scott Feldman ($8.0)**

28. Athletics ..... 5.12 ....... $11.64M ($86.80) ............. Rich Hill ($6.0)

29. Rockies ...... 5.33 ....... $17.49M ($112.65) ........... Jorge De La Rosa ($12.50)

30. Brewers ...... 5.43 ...... $16.86M ($63.90) ........... Matt Garza ($12.50)#

* Released May 13.

** Demoted to bullpen April 26.

# On rehab, has not pitched this season.

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