The Nationals’ Max Scherzer Signing Is a Short-Term Coup, a Long-Term Risk, and a Surefire Ripple-Effect Catalyst

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The Washington Nationals and free-agent starting pitcher Max Scherzer have reportedly agreed to a seven-year contract, potentially paving the way for another blockbuster deal out of D.C. and dramatically affecting multiple playoff races.

Though the specific financial terms haven’t been released, reports indicate that Scherzer’s haul could approach $200 million, besting the seven-year, $180 million deal his ex-teammate Justin Verlander received two offseasons ago. If so, there’s a good chance that, like Verlander’s, Scherzer’s contract will prove to be an overpay, even with salaries surging throughout baseball and teams paying about $6 million per win on the open market. That’s because pitchers are inherently volatile and vulnerable commodities, and even Cy Young–caliber arms are likely to eventually suffer attrition, major injuries, or both. Think about what happened to all-world pitchers like Kevin Brown, Johan Santana, CC Sabathia, and even Verlander as their megadeals wore on, and you could very well be envisioning Scherzer’s future with the Nats, who are now wedded to him through his 37th birthday.

In the here and now, though, the Nationals are getting one of the best pitchers in the game.1 Over the past two seasons, Scherzer fired 434.2 innings (sixth in the majors), struck out 492 batters (tops in the majors), and posted a 3.02 ERA (10th in the majors and fifth in the higher-offense American League). He’s made 198 career starts, tossing 1,239.1 innings while only once landing on the disabled list. Washington starters led baseball last year with a 3.04 ERA, and Scherzer will make that group even stronger. Combine that formidable pitching staff with a potent and balanced lineup, and the Nats look like one of the favorites, and arguably the favorite, to win it all in 2015.

But they might not be finished. As currently configured, the Nats would need to rely on 35-year-old Jayson Werth to return to full strength after his recent shoulder surgery, and for recently acquired infielder Yunel Escobar to shake off an ugly 2014 season and fare well playing out of position at second base. The bullpen’s also thinner after the Nats shipped Tyler Clippard to Oakland in the Escobar trade. Those areas of need could lead to more deals. The more likely impetus for further action, however, could be the Nats’ areas of extreme strength. Adding Scherzer gives Washington an absurdly deep rotation, with last year’s no. 5 starter Tanner Roark — he of the 2.85 ERA, 3.47 FIP, and 198.2 innings pitched — now the odd man out. Depth like that creates a potentially unbeatable rotation, but it also creates all kinds of trade possibilities.

Jordan Zimmermann and Doug Fister are due to make $16.5 million and $11.4 million, respectively, in their final season before free agency, and both would be attractive trade bait for teams seeking a reliable starter with top-rate command. With clubs like the Red Sox, the now-Scherzer-less Tigers, and others seeking starting pitching help, the Nats could opt to trade Zimmermann or Fister to enhance their overall roster depth, load the farm system, or both. Knowing how bold GM Mike Rizzo can be, even a megadeal involving star right-hander Stephen Strasburg can’t be ruled out. Strasburg offers one more year of team control than Zimmermann or Fister, and he’s two years younger than Zimmermann and four and a half years younger than Fister. And as strong of a relationship as the Nats have built with super-agent Scott Boras — who represents Strasburg, Scherzer, and Bryce Harper, among others — he has never been a big fan of letting his clients sign extensions with their current employers instead of testing the open market. The Nats know how tantalizing Strasburg will be to potential trade partners, and if they don’t think they’ll be able to re-sign him, they could cut ties now. And, of course, that’s just on the pitching side of things: The club has other big free-agent decisions coming up, including what to do with star shortstop and free-agent-to-be Ian Desmond.

jordan-zimmermann-nationals-triToni L. Sandys/The Washington Post/Getty Images

Even before they signed Scherzer, the Nationals knew the core of their roster was about to get really expensive or really broken up. Adding Scherzer might force the team into making some of those tough personnel calls sooner than it otherwise would have, but it also increases the team’s chances of bringing a World Series title to D.C. for the first time in 91 years.

Meanwhile, though the Tigers might have avoided another foolish long-term deal for an aging pitcher by refusing to meet Scherzer’s demands, their 2015 World Series odds just took a hit. The winners of four consecutive AL Central titles no longer have the formidable rotation they once did, even with David Price acquired last summer and Alfredo Simon (a major regression candidate this year) and Shane Greene added this offseason. With Miguel Cabrera’s recovery from ankle surgery causing concern and 36-year-old Victor Martinez a near-lock to see some pullback after a monster 2014 campaign, the Tigers could end up relying heavily on newly acquired Yoenis Cespedes and skilled but questionable twentysomething commodities like Nick Castellanos, Anthony Gose, and Jose Iglesias to pick up some of the slack. If Detroit slips a bit, that could open the door for the 2014 AL champion Royals and the upstart Indians and White Sox to make some serious noise. And this signing could affect teams other than the Nats and Tigers. The Marlins, a serious sleeper club fielding a young and talented roster following several offseason acquisitions, might now be confined to wild-card hopes given how loaded the Nationals appear to be.

And then there’s the pitching market, where we could see multiple reactive moves involving front-line starters now that Scherzer has finally signed. In addition to prompting a deal involving an incumbent Nationals starter, Scherzer coming off the board could prompt a pitching-needy team to ante up for free agent James Shields or intensify its pursuit for Cole Hamels, with the Phillies willing to deal their ace if they can get a mother lode of prospects in return.

A wild and woolly hot stove season just saw its biggest name come off the board. And the fun’s probably not over yet.

This article has been updated to reflect that Max Scherzer was on the disabled list to begin the 2009 season.

Filed Under: MLB, MLB Hot Stove, MLB Free Agents, MLB Free Agency, MLB Contracts, MLB Trades, Money Matters, Max Scherzer, Washington Nationals, NL East, Detroit Tigers, AL Central, Pitchers, Justin Verlander, Jordan Zimmermann, Doug Fister, Stephen Strasburg, Ian Desmond, Mike Rizzo, MLB Stats, Baseball, Jonah Keri

Jonah Keri is a staff writer for Grantland. His book The Extra 2%: How Wall Street Strategies Took a Major League Baseball Team From Worst to First is a New York Times best seller. The paperback edition of his new book, Up, Up, and Away, on the history of the Montreal Expos, is now available.

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