How Patrick Corbin won the winter

Until Bryce Harper and Manny Machado find homes, it’s difficult to say which team won the offseason. Impossible, even. As for the player who won the winter, well that’s a no-brainer.

When Patrick Corbin signed with the Washington Nationals back on Dec. 7 for $140 million over six years, it didn’t seem that anomalous. Sure, it was relatively early in the hot stove cycle. Yes, a six-year contract for a 29-year-old hurler with a Tommy John surgery on his résumé might have been a little on the lengthy side. But all in all, based on historical norms, the deal was within reason. Two months later, with a stagnant market turning free agents into freeze agents, Corbin’s pact sticks out like a sore thumb with a Day-Glo thimble on it.

Just how conspicuous is Corbin’s contract? His $140 million is more than twice the amount Red Sox hurler Nathan Eovaldi, who signed the second-richest contract of any free agent this offseason (four years, $67.5 million). In fact, it’s more than the value of the next three largest free-agent deals combined. It’s also $140 million more than Dallas Keuchel has gotten so far (the former Cy Young winner is still up for grabs). All of which raises the question, how exactly did Patrick Corbin win the winter?

It all started with a canceled honeymoon. After getting married at the Mountain Shadows Resort in Scottsdale, Arizona, on Nov. 17, Corbin and his new bride, Jen, were planning on celebrating with a jaunt to Puerto Vallarta. But the business of being a free agent — the top starter on the market, to be exact — got in the way. It happened quickly.

The Phillies, whose owner made headlines in November when he talked about spending “stupid money” this offseason, came a-courtin’. So too did the Nationals, a franchise whose recent success has been fueled by a seemingly unquenchable thirst for elite starting pitching. The Yankees, who had obvious holes in the rotation and whom Corbin rooted for as a child growing up in Syracuse, were also firmly in the mix.

Although Corbin says he enjoyed his visits with all three of his primary East Coast suitors, it was his trip to D.C. that stood out. For openers, as soon as his quintet — the pitcher, his wife, agent John Courtright, Nats GM Mike Rizzo and owner Mark Lerner — entered Fiola Mare, a swanky Georgetown seafood spot, they found themselves getting frisked and wanded because Vice President Mike Pence happened to be dining in the back room.

“That was kind of different,” Corbin said.

But the most unique thing about that dinner meeting was the straightforward manner in which Rizzo and Lerner communicated their interest. Over a symphony of food and drink that included oysters and pinot noir and tiramisu, the two men held court at the circular five-top and refused to be coy, as has become the custom in MLB front offices these past couple of years. Instead, they presented the franchise’s one-year, three-year, and five-year plans. They discussed neighborhoods and school systems with the newlyweds. The fact that the owner of the team was at the table spoke volumes. “We were trying to impress,” Rizzo said. “We know no other way.”

It’s an M.O. that’s all but lost in the polar vortex that is today’s MLB marketplace. As one veteran agent put it: “The problem the last two years in free agency is that let’s say you have Babe Ruth. You could call darn near every team and it would be like holding a gun to somebody’s head to get a GM to say, ‘Hey, you know what? Your guy Babe is pretty good. I like him.’ What you would hear is, ‘Well, you know what, the way we look at it, there’s like six Babe Ruths out there.'”

In Corbin’s case, going full blast after their No. 1 target meant adding a sixth year to the deal, something the Phillies and Yankees weren’t willing to do. Neither were the Angels, who originally drafted Corbin and were also in on the southpaw. Not that anyone could blame those clubs: Before last season, when Corbin posted a career high in strikeouts, a career low in WHIP, and finished fifth in the Cy Young voting, the jury was still out on him. In 2013, the former second-round pick was an All-Star with Arizona. But the year after that, he underwent Tommy John surgery and missed the whole season. Two years after that, in 2016, he struggled so much he was banished to the D-backs’ bullpen. Even including his monster 2018 campaign, the three pitchers Corbin is most similar to at this point in his career, according to Baseball-Reference.com, are — wait for it — Jon Niese, George Stone and Erik Hanson.

Nevertheless, the Nationals, coming off a deeply disappointing season and convinced the 2018 vintage of Corbin — the one who ratcheted up his slider usage beyond 40 percent and introduced a slow curveball — was not a mirage, put on the full-court press. Just like they did in January 2015, when they gave Max Scherzer $210 million to be their ace, even though their rotation had been the best in baseball the previous season. Because, as Rizzo is fond of saying, you can never have too much starting pitching. It worked.

“It just felt like the Nationals wanted me the most,” Corbin said as he stood in front of his locker at the Nationals’ spring training complex in West Palm Beach, Florida. “And I think they showed it by adding that sixth year and coming after me aggressively.”

It didn’t hurt that when the Corbins returned to the Four Seasons after dinner that night, they bumped into Nats cornerstone Ryan Zimmerman and his wife, Heather, who just so happened to be out on a date at the hotel’s steakhouse. Zimmerman, who has spent his entire 14-year career in Washington, didn’t give Corbin the hard sell — instead he told the hurler to ignore the money and just pick the place that felt most comfortable. Meanwhile, Heather and Jen chatted about what it’s like living in the D.C. area. The couples chatted in the lobby for half an hour. Before they parted, the players exchanged phone numbers. The next day, news broke that Corbin and the Nationals had reached an agreement.

Two days after that, Corbin sat on a podium at Nats Park, with Rizzo by his side and Lerner seated in the front row. Scherzer and Zimmerman were in attendance too, along with starter Stephen Strasburg and new catcher Yan Gomes. “I’m excited to join the ballclub and be a part of something special,” Corbin said. “Just excited to join the guys and glad I’m part of the family.”

Right then and there, it was clear the Nats had won Corbin’s heart. And he’d won theirs. But that’s not all Corbin won. Two months later, when spring training began and dozens of free agents were still flapping in the breeze — including Harper and Machado — and with no other offseason contract coming even remotely close to Corbin’s, it became abundantly clear he’d won the winter.

As glorious as that may sound, perhaps it’s a dual-edged sword. The whole “with great power comes great responsibility” thing. Even in ordinary times, a $140 million contract carries with it the pressure to perform, to justify. But these are not ordinary times. And so maybe that same $140 million contract — the one that dwarfed every other deal that has been consummated over the past three and a half months — carries with it even more pressure. Then again, maybe not.

“I don’t feel any different coming in here,” said Corbin, whom Nats manager Davey Martinez has described as the consummate professional and very intense. “It’s like a normal offseason. Only thing is, new teammates, and a new staff that I’m trying to get familiar with. I’m just going to try to get ready for the season and try to get better. But I don’t feel any different really.”

Of course, whatever pressure Corbin might have felt is probably more than offset by the soft landing that is having Scherzer and Strasburg ahead of him in the Washington rotation. Indeed, being the most highly paid No. 3 starter in all the land does have its perks.

“That was a big key for us to come here,” Corbin said of Scherzer and Strasburg. “You have to have good starting pitching to win. They’re the best in the game. I get to watch them every day and try to get better.”

In the meantime, Corbin is adjusting to the new normal. He and Jen haven’t bought a home yet, instead opting to rent for a year while they figure out the lay of the land in the District. Almost comically frugal in the past — the car he bought in 2010 after receiving a $450,000 signing bonus was a used one, and he lived with his parents after his rookie season — Corbin has learned to let it loose a little. Especially when it comes to restaurants.

“We’re foodies,” he said before going off on a tangent about how he’s actually the spender in the family. “I have to tell her to go and get stuff sometimes,” he said of his wife, then noted how she recently came home bragging she’d just bought a $175 pair of jeans. “That’s the first time she’s ever done that.”

It probably won’t be the last. Because that’s how it goes when you win the winter.

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