Max Scherzer was unequivocally the best pitcher available this winter in free agency. This could be communicated with the fact that he was fresh off a 2.64 ERA in his eighth year as a Cy Young finalist just as well as it could be with the fact that he’s Max Scherzer. And yet it once seemed difficult to imagine that he would score anything resembling a record-setting contract: Scherzer, for all his considerable skill, is 37. If talent can significantly blunt the effects of aging, it cannot erase them entirely, and teams are willing to shoulder only so much risk. This meant that a hefty two-year deal seemed likely, or three years, maybe, with an average annual value somewhere north of $30 million. But more than that? Above Yankees pitcher Gerrit Cole’s record $36 million AAV? Above $40 million? All but unfathomable.
But that was before the starting pitching market set itself ablaze on the hot stove. It was before the Mets signaled a particular interest in making a big splash for 2022. It was before the team’s owner, Steve Cohen, decided that he wanted to significantly flex his financial might in his second offseason with the club. What do you get when you mix all of those factors together? The kind of record-setting deal for Scherzer that would have sounded absurd just a few weeks ago.
The veteran starter will reportedly join New York on a three-year, $130 million contract that includes a no-trade clause and an opt-out after the second year. That’s a $43.3 million average annual value, which blows away the previous record by an incredible, almost inconceivable increase of 20%. And it gives the Mets a tremendous statement move—although, if they’re smart, they won’t be done adding just yet.
So how does one evaluate a deal like this? As jaw-dropping as the numbers are, Scherzer could easily provide that value (or more!), if he continues at full strength on his current trajectory. Just look at what he did last year: He was among the biggest acquisitions of the deadline when he went from the Nationals to the Dodgers, he had a best-in-baseball 0.864 WHIP and his 166 ERA+ was second only to eventual Cy Young winner Corbin Burnes. He had the lowest walk rate in the National League. In other words, he looked very much like one of the best pitchers in baseball, which is exactly what he’s been for the better part of a decade now.
But “if he continues at full strength on his current trajectory” is a loaded caveat for any starter—let alone one at his age. It’s true that Scherzer has been remarkably durable to date: He’s pitched at least 170 innings in every year since his first full major league season in 2009. (That’s other than the shortened pandemic year of '20, though even there, he was one of only two dozen starters with more than 67 IP.) But that can’t last forever, and this year, a few cracks began to show. In July, Scherzer made a rare-for-him trip to the IL with a groin issue. More troublingly, in October, his playoff campaign was cut short with a dead arm. There’s no indication that these struggles will persist into '22. But they do serve as a reminder: There is no fail-safe guarantee of good health on a pitching mound, especially with a player on the other side of 35, not even one with Scherzer's formidable long-term record.
Yet New York was willing to pay up—and to pay up big. Part of that was likely simple faith in Scherzer. Part was the need to edge out other teams in a hot, crowded market. And part was the fact that the Mets really, really needed starting pitching. In fact, even after adding Scherzer, they still could use some more starting pitching: While he’ll pair with Jacob deGrom for the most fearsome one-two punch in MLB, there’s still a troubling lack of depth here, and it would be wise to pick up another starter. This is a Mets team that was badly stung by injuries down the stretch last year—and while they’ve made the best addition that they possibly could in Scherzer, they might be without their leader in innings pitched from last year, Marcus Stroman, who is currently a free agent, and they already lost Noah Syndergaard to the Angels.
Which is to say that it’s possible to imagine a future where this is the best rotation in baseball: If Scherzer, deGrom and Carlos Carrasco are healthy, and Taijuan Walker and Tylor Megill take steps forward, it’s hard to see the group as anything else. But that “if” is a big one. It doesn’t take that much squinting to imagine another season full of injuries, mixed in with some regression, which would leave this rotation almost as shorthanded as it was last year. (They could use some bullpen help, too, after the departure of Aaron Loup.) There simply isn’t much room for error here. It’s true that their payroll, at roughly $268 million, is now the largest in MLB. Yet there’s still a lack of depth here that needs to be addressed.
The Mets are in a much better spot today than they were yesterday. When, it’s worth noting, they were already in a much better spot than they had been a few days before—they addressed their thin outfield by picking up Starling Marte and Mark Canha on Friday, along with infielder Eduardo Escobar, although that last move notably still leaves room to, say, bring back free-agent middle infielder Javier Báez. But they’re still in a somewhat delicate position. The club has some work left to do if it’s as interested in contending as these moves suggest.
The Mets paid handsomely for Scherzer—the sort of deal that makes sense only if a team is declaring that it is ready to win at any cost. It should be great news for fans. But if Cohen and the front office truly want to follow through, well, they’ll have to add a little bit more.
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