Welcome to The Opener, where every weekday morning you’ll get a fresh, topical column to start your day from one of SI.com’s MLB writers.
The Nationals are going nowhere fast for the second straight season. They’ve won just two of their last nine series, have claimed just one of six series against divisional foes and are in last place in the NL East with the division's worst run differential. There are seven teams in front of them to leapfrog for a wild-card spot.
Perhaps worst of all, an MRI on Wednesday revealed nerve irritation in Stephen Strasburg’s neck, and the team didn’t provide a timetable for his return. With Patrick Corbin (6.28 ERA) ranking dead-last among qualified starters on both the ERA leader board and the expected ERA leader board amid a sharp decrease in strikeouts and increase in walks, that leaves Max Scherzer as the team’s only reliable starter.
Scherzer, 36, has been pitching like he's in his prime. He ranks second in the National League with a 36.5 K%, owns a career-best 2.34 ERA through 11 starts and is set to be a free agent in the winter after completing his seven-year, $210 million deal. He’s the rare star that has maintained an elite level of play throughout a nine-figure contract, and one of the sport’s few remaining workhorses as teams look to reduce the amount of innings most starters accumulate. The three-time Cy Young winner would be the biggest name on the trade market if the Nationals do decide to recoup what they can before he hits free agency.
This is not as obvious of a sale job as the Rockies have with Trevor Story (once he’s healthy). Washington is a better team than Colorado and may even look to re-sign Scherzer this winter after dealing him, much like the Yankees did with Aroldis Chapman after loaning him to the Cubs for their 2016 World Series run. But it’s something the Nationals should certainly consider if it continues to linger on the outskirts of the playoff race. Washington’s farm system was ranked by MLB.com as the worst in the league entering the season, with High A pitcher Cade Cavalli (No. 99) as the only prospect ranked in the top 100. Dangling a pitcher with the unimpeachable credentials of Scherzer would help restock the farm and prepare for the future.
Complicating the situation are Scherzer's 10-and-5 rights, which give him the authority to veto any trade not to his liking, and his unusual contract structure, which puts the Nationals on the hook for payments of $15 million between 2015–28. With Mad Max set to take the mound Friday against the Phillies, here are the five teams who appear best poised to acquire him for a title run.
Boston’s collection of previously mediocre rotation arms have acquitted themselves surprisingly well so far, ranking third in the AL in fWAR. But if GM Chaim Bloom wants to aggressively take advantage of his franchise’s earlier-than-expected ascension into contention, dealing for Scherzer would be the most surefire way to improve a team without an obvious Game 1 starter.
Boston Sports Journal’s Sean McAdam reports the Red Sox could indeed be a potential trade partner for Scherzer if he does become available. Could they end up shipping away some of the prospects they acquired in last summer’s fire sale? Seven of their top 30 prospects, as ranked by MLB.com, have been acquired in trades since the beginning of 2020. The Nationals would likely ask for prized middle infield prospect Jeter Downs, who arrived in Boston in the Mookie Betts deal, but it's hard to know if the Red Sox would trade Downs away for two or three months of Scherzer in a year when they weren't expected to contend.
Boston’s top rivals also loom as a potential destination for the future Hall of Famer, according to McAdam. It’s not hard to see why. The Yankees have the need, rich coffers and a hunger to end a 12-year World Series drought.
Gerrit Cole has been everything the Yankees could have expected since they acquired him before last season, and pairing him with Scherzer would give the Bombers a terrifying one-two postseason punch. New York may need that sort of stability at the top. Corey Kluber’s shoulder issues resurfaced in the first start after his no-hitter and Jameson Taillon has completely revamped his approach after a year off with poor results (5.10 ERA, 47.2 innings in 10 starts). Domingo German has feasted in four starts against losing teams (1.03 ERA) but hasn’t held up against winning teams (5.34 ERA in six starts), raising doubts about his postseason chops. Jordan Montgomery has sneakily been more formidable than in the past, but it’s hard to imagine the Yankees brass entrusting the lefty soft-tosser with a playoff start.
Pretty much every baseball player would relish the chance of putting on the pinstripes and winning a World Series for the sport’s most storied franchise. Scherzer wouldn't veto a trade for a shot at that ... would he?
We promise this list doesn’t just include only AL East teams. But I’ll highlight one more club from that division that seems like a solid fit on paper, if not in practice.
Toronto has a better run differential than both of its rivals listed above, yet ranks last in the AL in starters fWAR (1.6). A whopping 13 pitchers have combined to start 54 games. Toronto sorely needs a right-handed hurler, as its current top three consists entirely of southpaws in Hyun Jin Ryu, Robbie Ray and Steven Matz. The Blue Jays possess the most minor-league talent of any team on this list, and the Nationals would love to raid it. Team ownership allowed for a swing-of-the-fences deadline deal back in 2015 when the Jays acquired David Price for their memorable run to the ALCS.
But there’s potentially an immovable roadblock: It seems unlikely Scherzer would approve playing the rest of the year’s home games in Buffalo’s Triple A stadium that’s acting as Toronto’s home until the Canadian government allows teams to travel in and out of the country again.
Some Nationals fans would sooner lose Scherzer for nothing in the offseason than see him traded to a division rival for a World Series run. But Atlanta was pegged by McAdam as another team interested in Scherzer, and the Braves boast the sort of minor league talent that could make it worth Washington’s while.
At the major league level, Atlanta’s pitching has been a disappointment. The team’s 4.43 ERA ranks 11th in the NL, as offseason acquisitions Drew Smyly and Charlie Morton haven’t provided the boost they were signed for. Last year’s top starter, Max Fried, struggled badly out of the gate, and 2019 standout rookie Mike Soroka can’t be counted on to bounce back from shoulder inflammation that resurfaced recently and plagued him earlier in his career. Early feel-good story Huascar Ynoa broke his hand punching a dugout bench. So, yeah, it couldn’t hurt to have Scherzer.
Atlanta’s Liberty Media ownership has historically employed a hard budgetary limit, which could present another obstacle. The Braves could, however, convince the Nationals to kick in some cash by packaging some upper-level prospects who have been knocking at the door of the bigs but have been unable to break into their 25-man roster.
Jack Flaherty’s recent oblique injury, which was described as “significant” by manager Mike Shildt, means St. Louis has an ace-sized hole at the top of its rotation for at least the next couple of months. Even when Flaherty returns, the Cardinals could use another top-shelf arm to start in the playoffs.
After turning back the clock in last year’s shortened season, Adam Wainwright has looked more like the mediocre starter he was between 2016–19. Carlos Martinez looks lost again, with a 5.83 ERA and career-low whiff rates by a large margin, after a sudden and precipitous decline last year. Miles Mikolas, who missed the entire '20 season after flexor tendon surgery, made his return on May 22 and had to leave early with forearm tightness, which will sideline him until at least after the All-Star break. Kwang Hyun Kim isn’t scaring anyone despite his acceptable numbers. John Gant has nearly as many walks as strikeouts while benefiting from the biggest gap between his ERA (1.60) and FIP (3.98) among pitchers with at least 50 innings.
Scherzer grew up a Cardinals fan in Chesterfield, Mo., and would probably relish the chance to pitch for his hometown team. If this season was a chapter in Mad Max: Road to Cooperstown, he’d waive his no-trade clause and lead St. Louis to its first World Series title in 10 years. We’ll see if it plays out that way in real life.
- We'll dedicate this section today to the well-being of Durham Bulls pitcher Tyler Zombro, who underwent a scary ordeal Thursday night in the eighth inning of a game between the Triple A affiliates of the Rays (Durham) and the Orioles (Norfolk). Zombro, a 26-year-old undrafted pitcher out of George Mason University, was hit in the face by a line drive off the bat of Norfolk catcher Brett Cumberland. He crumpled face-first to the ground and after lying motionless for a few moments reportedly started convulsing. The situation was so grim that Zombro's wife, who was in the ballpark, was escorted onto the field to be with him and the game was eventually suspended for good. The Rays released a statement later that evening saying he was in stable condition at the hospital.
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