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Rusty Staub, Mets, Expos icon, dies at age 73

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Sad news to report: Rusty Staub, who starred for the Astros, Expos, Mets, Tigers and Rangers over a 23-year playing career, has died at the age of 73.

Staub had suffered from numerous health issues in recent years. In 2015 he suffered a near-fatal heart attack while on a transatlantic flight. He survived that ordeal but fell ill over the winter and, eventually, was struck with a blood infection and subsequent kidney failure. He died just after midnight last night at the Good Samaritan Medical Center in West Palm Beach, Florida due to multiple organ failure.

Staub came up with what was then known as the Houston Colt .45s, later the Astros, in 1963, at the age of 19. He’d only play one full season — at the age of 18 — and one partial season in the minors. The reason was obvious: Staub could hit. By the age of 21, in his third big league season, he was already getting on base at a healthy clip and, over the next few years, his keen eye and gap power allowed him to develop into one of the better bats in the extraordinarily tough National League of the 1960s. While never a below average hitter after 1965, his true coming out party occurred in 1967 when he hit .333/.398/.473 with 44 doubles for the 1967 Astros. A man of extraordinarily high baseball intelligence, he was among the first Astros players to truly appreciate and take advantage of the cavernous confines of the Astrodome, and adjusted his approach to hit to the gaps as opposed to swinging for the fences, despite his considerable power. He was an All-Star in right field that year, the first of his six selections to the Midsummer Classic.

Staub, never a favorite to Astros ownership due to his tough contract negotiating stances, including a holdout at the beginning of the 1968 season, was traded to the expansion Montreal Expos before the 1969 campaign. While he had already become a star in Houston, it was in Montreal that he truly began to forge his baseball legacy. Nicknamed Le Grand Orange for his stature and his blaze orange hair, Staub was the Expos’ first star, hitting an outstanding .302/.426/.526 with 29 homers in the club’s first year of existence. The Expos lost 110 games that year — and Staub would only play in Montreal for three seasons, returning for one partial season a decade later — but he forged his status as a Montreal Expos legend which lasts to this day.

Staub was traded again on the eve of the 1972 season, heading to the New York Mets in exchange for or Tim Foli, Mike Jorgensen and Ken Singleton. It was a transaction that made a mark on both clubs, giving the Expos a core of players which would improve their prospects in the coming years and giving the Mets a larger than life star and offensive weapon in some of the franchise’s better seasons. He was a key part of the 1973 pennant winning team and, during his second stint with the Mets between 1981 and 1985 he helped bridge the gap during a sometimes painful rebuild. In both stints he was a fan favorite. Overall he hit .276/.358/.419 in nine seasons as a Met.

For a player who was known primarily for his bat, it’s somewhat surprising that he wasn’t acquired to be someone’s full-time DH earlier than he was, but the Detroit Tigers tapped him for those purposes, acquiring him in exchange for Tigers legend Mickey Lolich after the 1975 season. Staub would man right for the most part in 1976 but spent the entire 1977 and 1978 season as the Tigers’ designated hitter, putting up his reliably above average numbers in that role. Staub would DH and play corner positions in 1980 with the Rangers and would bop between first, right and left for the Expos and Mets for the remainder of his career, retiring after the 1985 campaign.

Staub’s career line: .279/.362/.431 with 292 homers, 1,466 RBI and an OPS+ of 124 over 23 years. He remains 13th all-time in games played, 35th all-time in career plate appearances, 44th all-time in times getting on base and 52nd all-time in career walks. He was on the Hall of Fame ballot for seven years, though he never got as much as 8% of the vote. Was he a Hall of Famer, objectively speaking? Probably not, but he certainly deserved more love from the BBWAA voters than he received.

Off-the-field Staub was a beloved figure. A foodie, a wine connoisseur and a New York restaurant owner, the stories of Staub holding court with fans, the media and baseball figures, usually over glasses of wine, are legion. His humanitarian record is even more impressive. From Bill Madden of the New York Daily News:

His Rusty Staub Foundation, which in 1986 established the New York Police and Fire Widows and Children’s Benefit Fund, distributed over $11 million in the first 15 years of its existence to the families of New York area police and fire fighters killed in the line of duty, and since the September 11, 2001 attacks, received over $112 million in contributions. On January 8, Staub announced that, in conjunction with Catholic Charities, his foundation had also served 9,043,741 meals to the hungry at food pantries throughout New York over last 10 years, with funds though his annual wine auction dinner and foundation golf tournament.

There were better hitters than Rusty Staub, but far fewer than you might think. There may have been more beloved baseball figures than Staub, but that number is even smaller.

Good travels, Le Grand Orange. You’ll be greatly missed.

Nationals succeeded by spending money

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Throughout the playoffs, the Nationals have been cast as plucky underdogs fighting and scrapping their way into the World Series. It’s somewhat true: the Nats overcame a dreadful start to the regular season after losing their star outfielder in Bryce Harper, and were heavy underdogs in the NLDS against the Dodgers, who won 13 more games. But the Nationals are not David in a David vs. Goliath story. They’re closer to Goliath because they have flexed their payroll muscle to fill the roster with talented players.

The Nationals didn’t come close to matching the 13-year, $330 million contract the Phillies wound up agreeing to with Harper, instead offering a 10-year, $300 million deal of which about $100 million was deferred. Losing Harper has somewhat defined their 2019. But they did sign starter Patrick Corbin to a six-year, $140 million contract, and they’re paying Max Scherzer and Stephen Strasburg $38.33 million and $37.4 million, respectively. As we saw in the NLCS, it was the starting rotation that carried them into the World Series.

Scherzer, a three-time Cy Young Award winner, will not win the award again this year most likely, but he once again ranked among the game’s best pitchers. During the regular season, he posted a 2.92 ERA with 243 strikeouts across 172 1/3 innings. Strasburg led the league in wins with 18 and innings with 209 while authoring a 3.32 ERA with 251 strikeouts. Corbin continued to impress with a 3.25 ERA and 328 strikeouts in 202 innings. As a unit, the Nationals’ 3.53 ERA from starting pitchers ranked second-best in baseball behind the Dodgers. Sounds about right for a rotation collectively earning about $100 million.

We — the royal we — have been quick to point out when an uncommon strategy works, like the Cubs’ and Astros’ rebuilding strategies before they came in vogue or the Rays’ use of the “opener.” It’s only fair to point out that a time-tested strategy, spending money on good baseball players, also works. The Nationals’ current payroll of about $204.5 million is third-highest in baseball, according to USA TODAY.

In September, the Nationals’ NL East rival Phillies were reported by The Athletic’s Ken Rosenthal to have curtailed efforts to compete for a Wild Card because of a lack of certainty. The front office didn’t want to invest significant resources into grabbing a lowly Wild Card only to have to match up with the behemoth Dodgers in the NLDS. But that’s exactly what the Nationals did. The Nationals also swept the slumping Phillies in a five-game series September 23-26.

The Phillies aren’t alone. We’ve seen in the last few offseasons that teams have become loath to invest in free agents, particularly ones 30 and older. Even Scherzer took notice. Asked about the Nationals’ collective age, Scherzer said via The Athletic’s Rustin Dodd, “It just seems everybody wants younger and younger players. And everybody wants to forget about all the old guys. We see it in free agency, we’re not dumb. And the fact (is) we’re the oldest team and we won the National League.”

Gerrit Cole, Anthony Rendon, and Josh Donaldson will highlight the upcoming free agent class. They could be joined by Strasburg, Aroldis Chapman, and J.D. Martinez if they exercise the opt-out clauses in their contracts. In the cases of Cole and Rendon, at least two-thirds of the league should be actively pursuing them but if the past few years are any indication, the actual interest will be muted and they won’t end up signing until after the new year. Front offices have continued to blindly recite the phrase “aging curve” while pointing at the Rays in an effort to scale back payroll. The Nationals, meanwhile, are putting the “money” back in Moneyball and they might win a championship because of it.