Max Scherzer got his money, and the National League's deepest rotation just got deeper, as the righthander reached an agreement with the Nationals on a seven-year contract for a staggering $210 million, half of which is deferred. In other words, he will receive $15 million per year for the next 14 years. In terms of both total value and average annual value, the contract ranks behind only Clayton Kershaw's seven-year, $215 million extension ($30.7 million AAV) with the Dodgers last year for the largest ever given to a pitcher, though the actual value is lower due to its record-setting deferral. Via Yahoo Sports' Jeff Passan, the contract is estimated to be worth $185 million in present-day value, for an average annual value of $26.4 million.
The signing also gives the Nationals enviable flexibility, most prominently by setting up the likelihood that they will trade one member of the starting rotation that posted the league's best ERA while helping the team to an NL-high 96 wins and the NL East title last season. Both Jordan Zimmermann and Doug Fister have one year before they reach free agency, though with the ability to deal from strength, general manager Mike Rizzo has a multitude of options.
Ever since Scherzer turned down a six-year, $144 million extension offer from the Tigers back in March — sometimes reported as a seven-years, $160 million offer when including his 2014 salary — on the heels of winning the 2013 AL Cy Young award, it was clear that the 30-year-old righty and his agent, Scott Boras, were aiming for a deal of distinction. They found one. Scherzer's contract is the sixth-largest deal ever given to a free agent, behind those of Alex Rodriguez ($275 million after his opt-out, $252 million prior), Albert Pujols and Robinson Cano (both $240 million) and Prince Fielder ($215 million). It's by far the largest free-agent deal ever signed by a pitcher, topping the six-year, $155 million deal to which the Cubs signed Jon Lester back in December, and the seven-year, $155 million contract the Yankees gave Masahiro Tanaka last winter. Kershaw's deal and the seven-year, $180 million contract signed by former Tigers teammate Justin Verlander were both extensions.
With the Cubs satiated by the Lester signing, the Tigers, unwilling or unable to make another Verlander-sized commitment, and the Yankees, Red Sox, Dodgers and other big-spending teams all sitting this one out, the market for Scherzer had been slow to develop this winter. That's in part by design, as Boras has operated this way in the past. Clients of his, such as Fielder, Michael Bourn, Kyle Lohse and Rafael Soriano, all signed after most of the other comparable free agents had come off the board and just weeks before pitchers and catchers reported for spring training — or sometimes even afterward. As of Sunday afternoon, one other team was said to be in the running for Scherzer's services, but that team was never identified, raising the question of whether it was a bluff by Boras.
That Scherzer would wind up with Washington makes a certain amount of sense. Both Zimmermann and Fister are heading into their final season before free agency and, barring injury, quite likely to command nine-figure deals themselves, and the move also reunites Scherzer with the man who drafted him. Rizzo was the Diamondbacks' scouting director back in 2006 when the team chose Scherzer with the 11th overall pick out of the University of Missouri. Scherzer didn't actually sign until May 31, 2007, however, by which point Rizzo had moved on to Washington as its assistant GM.
After winning the AL Cy Young in 2013 on the strength of a season in which he went 21-3 with a 2.90 ERA, 2.74 FIP, 10.1 strikeouts per nine and 6.7 WAR (Baseball-Reference version) in 214 1/3 innings, Scherzer enjoyed a 2014 season that was nearly as strong, going 18-5 with a 3.15 ERA, 2.85 FIP, 10.3 strikeouts per nine and 6.0 WAR in 220 1/3 innings. Both seasons were significant steps beyond the solid performances he put up during the first 4 1/2 seasons of his career with Arizona (2008-09) and Detroit (2010-12).
During that period, Scherzer's best single-season ERA was 3.50 (2010) while his best FIP was 3.27 (2012); his overall numbers from 2008-12 included a 3.88 ERA and 3.72 FIP. By backing up his award-winning campaign and making his second straight All-Star appearance (he started the 2013 game at Citi Field), he made clear that he had elevated his game to a new level, and thus was worthy of a top-shelf deal.
Scherzer now joins a team that won the NL East flag for the second time in three years in 2014 and a rotation that led the league in ERA (3.04) while ranking second in quality start rate (65 percent). The team's top five starters — Zimmermann, Fister, Stephen Strasburg, Gio Gonzalez and Tanner Roark — all posted ERAs of 3.57 or better (105 ERA+ or better) while accounting for all but 13 starts; both Fister and Gonzalez served stints on the disabled list during the first half of the season.
With six major league starters under varying lengths of club control, Rizzo has an enviable portfolio of starting pitchers to offer. The 28-year-old Zimmermann, the team's second-round pick in 2007, is a year away from free agency and will make $16.5 million in 2015, but the early word via the New York Post's Joel Sherman is that the team plans to keep him for the coming season. The soon-to-be-31-year-old Fister, a former teammate of Scherzer's in Detroit who was acquired in a December 2013 trade, is also a year away from free agency and will make $11.4 million in 2015 via an agreement reached on Friday, just prior to the deadline for submitting salary figures for arbitration. The 29-year-old Gonzalez, who was acquired from the A's in a December 2011 trade, has two years, a club option and a player option remaining on the extension he signed with the Nationals in January 2012; he'll make $11 million in 2015 and $12 million in 2016, with a $12 million option and $500,000 buyout for 2017, and then a $12 million option for 2018, one that can vest if he reaches 180 innings in 2017. There's also the 28-year-old Roark, who enjoyed an impressive breakout in his first full year in the majors (2.85 ERA, 5.1 WAR, 198 2/3 innings) and has just one year and 55 days of major league service under his belt, meaning that he won't even be arbitration-eligible until after the 2016 season.
Perhaps the most tantalizing possibility would be the trade of 26-year-old Strasburg, the number one pick of the 2009 draft. Despite pitching to a 3.14 ERA with 10.1 strikeouts per nine in a career-high 215 innings in 2014, and a 3.02 ERA with 10.3 strikeouts per nine in parts of five major league seasons, he's been viewed as an underachiever in some quarters due to his occasional lapses in command. As a Boras client, Strasburg has resisted overtures towards a multi-year extension thus far and is likely to test free agency following the 2016 season. Via an agreement reached before Friday's arbitration deadline, he will make $7.4 million in 2015. Fox Sports' Jon Morosi and USA Today's John Perrotto are among those hearing that he could be dealt, with the latter saying this via Twitter: "Hearing Strasburg is very much available and both sides believe it is time to move on."
Particularly after acquiring Yunel Escobar from the A's last week, the Nationals don't have any glaring holes in their major league lineup, though Jayson Werth underwent shoulder surgery earlier this month and, with a recovery time of two to three months, could open the season on the disabled list. That would press Tyler Moore or prospect Michael Taylor into service; the latter, who turns 24 on March 26, has just 95 plate appearances above Double A under his belt, including 43 with the Nats after hitting a combined .304/.390/.526 with 23 homers at Double A Harrisburg and Triple A Syracuse last year.
It seems unlikely that Strasburg would be dealt to cover such a short-term need, and likewise, it's a stretch to think he'll be traded merely for a prospect package. But with shortstop Ian Desmond and centerfielder Denard Span both a year away from free agency and middle infielder Danny Espinosa now without a spot thanks to the Escobar deal, Rizzo now has the flexibility to make a trade that would shore up one of those key positions for a longer period.
In all, the bottom line is that while Scherzer is expensive, his acquisition opens the Nationals — already one of the league’s strongest teams on paper —to a wide array of options that can be used not only to enhance their chances in 2015 but also to fortify them for years to come. It will be fascinating to see which way they turn.