Who’s The Priority? Cole, Rendon, or Strasburg

As initially reported by Jon Heyman, the Dodgers will pursue the three marquee free agents: Stephen Strasburg, Gerrit Cole, and Anthony Rendon. Each would greatly improve the team’s chances of winning the [looking up and praying to the baseball gods] World Series for the first time in my adult life. Of course, the playoffs can be a crapshoot but aside from the widespread narrative of the Nats overcoming all odds throughout the playoffs (I understand, in a way, they did) in pursuit of their first championship crown, my advanced statistically backed belief is — since 2015, the two teams in the Fall Classic represented the best baseball had to offer.

Unlike last off-season where the two most touted free agents (Harper/Machado) were sought after for their immense talent and age, this year’s top of the crop carry the former and not so much of the latter but more importantly, the proven capacity to continually perform at a high level in the postseason which Harper and Machado lacked.

The reality is, regardless of their perceived riches, if the Dodgers were to sign Stras, Cole or Rendon, it would only be one of them. And if they were to be inked by Los Angeles, it would be a far cry to how Andrew Friedman has concluded in pursuant of big-name free agents in the past. He hasn’t signed any them. Friedman has been branded as a GM who refuses to dish out mega deals. That belief exists after offering contracts north of $150 million to Zack Greinke and Bryce Harper, so the take on Friedman’s unwillingness to spend lacks veracity.

Nonetheless, I’ll attempt to figure or contemplate which of the three would suit the Dodgers need(s) best.

Stephen Strasburg

Since 2012 (his first season recording over 100 innings pitched), Strasburg has the 7th highest fWAR. Against the top 10 in fWAR since, he has the 4th lowest skill interactive ERA (SIERA) proving how effective he’s been. Unlike a lot of players, his ace-like production hasn’t faltered in the postseason. Of the pitchers with at least 5 starts in their playoff career, Strasburg has the 3rd lowest ERA (1.55 in 8 starts) behind Bill Hallahan (1.21 in 5 starts) and Sandy Koufax (0.98 in 7 starts). It’s a small sample but there’s no doubting his presence and resolve on the mound.

It’s clear what he’s capable of but there’s fear as to what he’ll demand in the open market and if the risk will outweigh the reward of signing him to such a lucrative deal. His age and injury-filled career are what has most questioning his worth. I covered in a post earlier this off-season why this shouldn’t deter teams, especially the Dodgers.

The key here for Los Angeles is the length of the contract. He’s entering his age 31 season but has thrown for under 1450 career innings. I believe he can produce at least 4 ace-like seasons worthy of $35+ million per year. Extremely doable and very worth it. Ultimately, he would be less costly than the pitcher who would’ve potentially won the World Series MVP instead if Houston took the series — Gerrit Cole.

Gerrit Cole

The Southern Cali native shouldn’t encounter much push back with what he’ll demand from the team that’ll eventually sign him. Maybe his age and recency bias will be the only slight knocks against him.

He’ll begin his age 29 season in 2020 with a career 3.22 ERA during the regular season and a 2.60 ERA in 10 appearances in the playoffs. Those are impressive numbers but what will have him commanding what’s believed to be a record-setting contract is what he’s done in the last 2 seasons with the Astros.

Since 2018, only six pitchers, including Cole, have logged over 400 innings pitched. And in that time, Gerrit is ranked third ERA (2.68), FIP (2.67) and fWAR (13.4) along with the lowest SIERA (2.75) among pitchers with at least 180 innings pitched. Compare that to his previous years in Pittsburgh — ranked 62nd in ERA (3.50), 30th in FIP (3.27) and t-53rd in SIERA (3.60). A stark contrast to his recent stint with Houston.

An argument can be made that Cole’s recent success has a lot to do with Houston’s ability to develop players. That can be countered with the Pirates recent inability to do the same. Looking at how his pitching repertoire changed between the two teams, it’s easy to see how he’s flourished.

He’ll likely demand a 7+ year deal with a plus $30 million average annual value. This is the type of contract the Dodgers have steered completely away from. But if by his age 35 season the contract ends, I don’t see so much of a costly liability. That’s of course, hoping he doesn’t completely break down somehow and in the latter half of the deal he’s worth only a fraction of what he signed for. This is the sole reason that incites fear among teams that hand out long term contracts, especially with pitchers that are generally more volatile than position players.

Andrew Friedman is very disciplined when it comes to acquiring players whether it be via trade or free-agent signing. Could he somehow decide what Cole’s asking for has more potential reward than risk? Is he smart enough to parlay what essentially would be dead money if Cole doesn’t live up to the deal? Yes and yes.

Anthony Rendon

Since 2013, Anthony Rendon has the 2nd highest fWAR for third baseman in baseball. In the 31 postseason career games, he’s put up a .848 OPS which is the 3rd highest among third baseman since 2014, his first playoff appearance. In the last 7 seasons, there haven’t been any more than 12 players per year that ended with a 6.0 fWAR or better. In Rendon’s MLB career, he’s had a +6 fWAR in 4 of them including the last 3 seasons.

He just finished helping his team win a World Series. Could he now just want to cash out without worrying about playing for a team that has championship aspirations? Maybe. Most pundits speculate that Rendon could be more interested in a short contract with a high average annual value. One example of that reasoning is a remark he made after a reporter posed a question regarding his impending free agency.

Reporter: “Where do you see yourself at age 36?”

Rendon: “Hopefully not playing baseball.”

Short but high monetary per year contracts for superstars, if recent history proves anything, is most enticing to Andrew Friedman.

But who to choose? The Dodgers have two starting pitchers that are essentially guaranteed a spot in the rotation —Walker Buehler and Clayton Kershaw. Kenta Maeda was considered a sure shot at a starting spot but with reports of his dissatisfaction and status of his current role, it’s uncertain whether he’ll begin the season as a starter or reliever or some combination of both. It’s also been reported that Andrew Friedman expects Julio Urias on the starting staff but that doesn’t assure him a spot. Tony Gonsolin and Dustin May have shown promise but with nearly half a season’s worth of major league experience, depending on them to progress and not take a step back which in turn can affect the team’s chances to remain as one of the league’s elite can be an unworthy gamble and somewhat illogical.

Having a rotation anchored by Strasburg or Cole and Buehler is almost exactly what Houston and the World Champion Nationals had on their road to the World Series. This will allow the Dodgers rotation some slack in the back end with the younger prospects to develop more comfortably. I don’t know about you but I’m all in favor of providing May, Gonsolin, Urias and any other pitcher projected to be a future starter with Los Angeles the least amount of stress to help them succeed.

But then there’s the dilemma the Dodgers face at third base. Justin Turner is 35 years old and has one more season left on his contract. He’s expressed being open to playing another position if needed. With no one in the Dodgers farm within the next two seasons to take over the reins at third, this leads to an urgency of signing or trading for a player to take over the position for the foreseeable future. If you’re wondering why Turner can’t continue playing the hot corner, his numbers defensively have been declining (likely continuing to do so) and his age could prevent him from getting anything more than a one or two-year extension. The Dodgers did just draft a third baseman as their first pick in 2019, Kody Hoese, and his development is on the right path but it’s much too early to peg him as the Dodgers 3B of the future even though that’s the plan.

There’s also an issue of how the Dodgers perform during the regular season compared to the postseason. Since 2017, the Dodgers have been the best offense in the National League and it’s not even close. The pitching staff has led the NL in fWAR since, but the Nationals aren’t far behind. The thing is, they’ve been so good during the regular season then come October, their aura of dominance tends to fade.

Here’s how the offense (OPS/strikeout percentage) and pitching (ERA) look year to year between the regular season and playoffs.

2017:

Regular Season .771 OPS/22.3 K% – 3.38 ERA

Postseason .786 OPS/23.0 K% – 3.32 ERA

2018:

Regular Season .774 OPS/22.6 K% – 3.38 ERA

Postseason .643 OPS/27.6 K% – 3.49 ERA

2019:

Regular Season .810 OPS/21.6 K% – 3.37 ERA

Postseason .730 OPS/32.8 K% – 4.20 ERA

Well, maybe 2017 wasn’t a good example to prove my point. And they might’ve won it all if a certain team didn’t make use of inappropriate advantages. But anyway, what’s evident is the regression in the last TWO years from the regular season to the postseason. And aside from this year, most of that regression falls on the offense. Here’s a look at how a few players have fared in the playoffs since 2017 and are still on the active roster.

J Turner 168 PA/.873 OPS

J Pederson 85 PA/.868 OPS

M Muncy 85 PA/.857 OPS

C Taylor 130 PA/.845 OPS

K Hernandez 85 PA/.823 OPS

C Seager 67 PA/.626 OPS

C Bellinger 145 PA/.560 OPS

A Barnes 84 PA/.465

The two sitting near the bottom really burn my biscuits. Not only has one just come off an MVP award-winning season, the other was an MVP candidate in 2016 but both have failed to show up in the playoffs consistently. I’m not saying give up on them but when two of the leading offensive contributors aren’t producing, it’s time to acquire someone that can pick up the slack.

Dodgers need to make moves conducive to winning a World Series. Signing one of the top 3 big dogs is such a move. But who?

I’ll admit from the moment the World Series ended, Gerrit Cole was unequivocally at the top of my list. No amount of money was to be spared to acquire him. And if you saw him perform this past October, you’d have agreed. Strasburg wasn’t that far behind. His performance may have not been as dominant, but it was damn near it. Good enough to earn him the Willie Mays MVP award. Rendon has been one of the best position players in all of baseball since his debut in the majors. He’ll cost a decent fortune but not near what the previous two mentioned will get on an annual basis.

The Dodgers are going after all three. So, here’s the order in which they should set their priorities.

  1. Anthony Rendon
  2. Gerrit Cole
  3. Stephen Strasburg

I’d rather bet on a position player over a pitcher. Also, this year the starting pitching free agent market is filled with other options much less costly. One prime example is Zack Wheeler which Roster Resource has him earning an estimated $18 million in 2020. Much less than the $32 million they predict Cole will earn or the $28 million for Strasburg. And Buehler, Wheeler, Kershaw, and company make for a formidable rotation. Add Rendon in the lineup and the sky’s the limit. And as an example of that lineup versus a right-handed pitcher:

RF Pederson

3B Rendon

1B Turner or Muncy

CF Bellinger

2B Lux or Muncy

SS Seager

C Smith

LF Verdugo or Pollock

Which pitcher in their right (handed throwing) mind wants to prepare for that?!

Oskar is a contributor to Dodgers-Lowdown. Follow him on Twitter @2rawsko94. Photo Credit: 94whip radio (Cole), The Good Phight (Rendon), and Federal Baseball (Strasburg).