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Less than two years ago, Max Scherzer helped lead the Nationals to their first World Series title. Two days from now, he could be with another team.
They don’t want to trade Scherzer, a franchise icon who should be the first player to represent them in the Hall of Fame, but they realize he’s worth more to them over these next few months if he’s wearing a different uniform. He’s by far the best available starting pitcher in a year when every contender could use another elite arm, and the Nationals should take advantage of that to improve their farm system, ranked by MLB.com as the worst in baseball entering this season.
There are a few complications for Scherzer’s suitors to navigate. He is a free agent after this season. Teams, especially those on the fringes of contention, will have to decide whether it’s worth it to deal away at least one of their top prospects for two months of Scherzer and the possibility of missing the playoffs or getting bounced in the wild-card game.
Scherzer, 37, also has the right to veto any trade because he’s played at least 10 years in the majors and five consecutive seasons with the same team. He’s reportedly most interested in a deal to the West Coast, though that has less to do with geography than it does his chances to win his second World Series in three years. Perhaps his best chance to do that is in the NL West, where the Dodgers, Padres and Giants are among the favorites to land him.
The Dodgers are preparing to be without Trevor Bauer for at least the rest of this season after he was accused of sexual assault and placed on administrative leave last month. Their willingness to sign Bauer in February despite his childish antics, reputation of being a bad teammate and history of online harassment was because they had concerns about their rotation. And that was before Dustin May underwent Tommy John surgery in May and Clayton Kershaw went on the injured list with forearm inflammation on July 3.
Los Angeles has the prospect capital to acquire Scherzer. Instead, it could be money that prevents the Dodgers from getting him. FanGraphs currently projects their luxury-tax payroll to be roughly $262.6 million, which exceeds the third and highest threshold, so the Dodgers would have to pay a 62.5% tax for every dollar they spend on Scherzer. His prorated luxury-tax cost for the rest of the year is about $10 million.
That said, the luxury tax penalty may not matter to the Dodgers. With or without Scherzer, they’re already facing a hefty tax bill. If trading for Scherzer is what it takes to win it all again, then it’s certainly worth it. No matter the price.
It is enticing to think about a Dodgers playoff rotation with Scherzer. Kershaw isn’t expected to be out for too much longer. In 18 starts this year, he’s 9–7 with a 3.39 ERA and 2.9 WAR. Both his 30.1% strikeout rate and 2.97 FIP are his best since 2016. Walker Buehler is 10–1 with a 2.31 ERA. His 3.1 WAR ranks ninth among all MLB pitchers. Julio Urías (3.63 ERA, 2.2 WAR) would be the best No. 4 starter in the league. This doesn’t include David Price (3.35 ERA), who has been quite effective in his hybrid starter-reliever role, and Tony Gonsolin (2.38 ERA), who didn’t make his 2021 debut until June because of right shoulder inflammation.
San Diego would exceed the first luxury-tax threshold if it adds Scherzer. Without the financial resources of Los Angeles, the Padres are considering cutting costs elsewhere. Their most-expensive, poorly-performing player is Eric Hosmer, who is under contract for another four years and owed $59 million after this season. According to Kevin Acee of the San Diego Union Tribune, for the Padres to get another team to take on Hosmer’s contract, they’d need to include one of their top four prospects. The Padres have a deep farm system, so trading one of them to get out of Hosmer deal early might not be a bad thing if it means clearing luxury-tax space for Scherzer.
General manager A.J. Preller is never shy to pull the trigger on a deal, but he’s been operating at a frenetic pace even for him over the past year. If the Padres acquire Scherzer, he’ll be the fourth starting pitcher they’ve traded for since December, when they got Blake Snell and Yu Darvish.
Trading for Scherzer would be even better for the Padres if they can re-sign him after the season ends. They are built to contend for the remainder of Scherzer’s career, and San Diego is a beautiful city. Pitching there sounds like a pretty great way to end a Hall of Fame career.
And then there’s the first-place Giants. Their surprising success is due in large part to their rotation, though it lacks a true ace with the exception of Kevin Gausman. Scherzer would change that.
Here’s how San Francisco’s rotation would look with Scherzer at the top.
- Max Scherzer, RHP, 7–4, 2.83 ERA, 2.5 WAR
- Kevin Gausman, RHP, 9–4, 2.21 ERA, 2.9 WAR
- Anthony DeSclafani, RHP, 10–4, 2.87 ERA, 2.1 WAR
- Alex Wood, LHP, 9-3, 3.65 ERA, 1.4 WAR
- Johnny Cueto, RHP, 6–4, 4.09 ERA, 1.2 WAR
Even with Scherzer, the Giants are projected to have plenty of luxury-tax space, which could help them add another player or two before Friday’s deadline. And with about $100 million in expiring contracts coming off their payroll after this season, they are in pretty good financial shape to extend or re-sign him. Like the Padres, the Giants are a rising team that’s in a good position to win now and in the future.
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