Let's start with this: It would be an absolute shock if the Houston Astros signed Max Scherzer.
And now let's remember this: We've been shocked plenty of times in Hot Stove seasons past (and in this one, for that matter).
So as we look around the Major League landscape and honestly evaluate Scherzer's late-developing market, let's not be completely dismissive of the faint possibility that the Astros emerge as the ol' "mystery team" for Mighty Max.
While my best guess -- discussed within this predictions piece -- remains that Scherzer goes back to Detroit, the Astros also loom as the rare team that has both the need and the long-term economic flexibility to make a Scherzer deal happen.
A few things must be understood here:
1. The Astros received zero dollars in local TV revenue in 2014. At a time when local media revenue dictates so much of what clubs have the ability to do with their player payroll, that's a tremendous burden to bear, and it was reflected in their budget. But the recent end of their television network bankruptcy case and the launch of a reorganized network, Root Sports Houston, figures to dramatically impact their revenue streams moving forward.
2. Because of this added revenue, the club went into the winter publicly talking about a $20 million boost in payroll from the roughly $50 million it carried in 2014. And the Astros have backed that by beefing up their bullpen with Luke Gregerson ($6 million for 2015) and Pat Neshek ($5.5 million) and their lineup with Jed Lowrie ($8 million). Some of those additions are offset by the subtractions of dollars that came off the books -- the remaining salary they owed to the long-departed Wandy Rodriguez, the expired Matt Albers and Jesse Crain contracts and the Jerome Williams and Jesus Guzman salaries (this all adds up to nearly $15 million). With expected arbitration raises for Dexter Fowler, Jason Castro, Chris Carter, Tony Sipp and some others, the Astros, as we sit here today, are probably looking at about $65 million in commitments for 2015. And don't forget: They still might move Castro, who could make nearly $4 million in arbitration, to address their backstop backlog, which could free up more cash.
3. The Astros have two of the first five picks in the 2015 Draft, and both of those picks are protected. Surrendering a second-rounder (the 46th overall pick) to sign Scherzer would not be ideal, but it's hardly a back-breaker for this team.
4. It's a matter of marketing and mindset that some clubs have to spend their way into credibility, both with fans and, frankly, with other players. We saw this with the Mariners a year ago, when they bid boldly on Robinson Cano. At some point (and granted, it doesn't have to be this year), we're going to see it from an Astros team that has carried bare-bones payrolls in recent seasons.
5. However you personally feel about this, the Astros, while acknowledging a lot has to go right, internally view themselves as a viable threat to post a winning record in 2015. They made a 19-game improvement from 2013 to 2014, and one can surmise that they wouldn't have invested heavily in the bullpen if they didn't think they could at least make the 12-game leap it would take to get over .500 in '15. While it's a tall order, the continued development of George Springer, Domingo Santana, Jon Singleton -- as well as the presence of Jose Altuve, Fowler and Carter in the lineup and Scott Feldman, Dallas Keuchel and Collin McHugh in the rotation -- could make .500 realistic.
So let's just take the bait and be optimistic enough to assume the Astros can win 81 or 82 games. Can you do that with me?
All right, now let's toss Scherzer, who has posted Baseball Reference-calculated WAR marks of 6.7 and 6.0 the past two seasons, onto the pile. If WAR is a totally accurate indicator of a player's impact (and trust me, I know it's not, but remember we're trying to be optimistic here) and if Scherzer stays healthy, you might be looking at an 87- or 88-win ballclub.
And if you're looking at an 87- or 88-win ballclub, you're looking at a contender in this time of general competitive parity.
As with all Hot Stove talk, there are obvious leaps of faith being taken with this proposal of Houston being one top-flight starter away from October, no question.
But hey, the Angels have some uncertainty in their rotation, and it simply remains to be seen how much the Mariners' offense has actually improved (for one, Nelson Cruz's homer total is bound to regress at Safeco Field). The A's, meanwhile, have taken a clear step back in expectation, and the Rangers have basically stood pat with a club that limped its way to 95 losses last year.
So while I'm not predicting the Scherzer-led Astros would be a favorite to run out and win the West, I am saying we're at a point in the game's evolution in which every club has some real or perceived flaws, and the thought of some young and hungry club jumping into the contention conversation is not as hurdle-laden as it once was.
The big X-factor here, naturally, is the contract itself.
How much would it cost to lure Scherzer to a team that has lost an average of 104 games over the last four seasons?
Furthermore, how much of said contract would have to be backloaded to fit Scherzer into the Astros' short- and long-term payroll projections (if they are, indeed, serious about keeping the 2015 payroll in the realm of $70 million)?
I don't claim to know the answers to those questions. However, from the outside looking in, I just don't see very many realistic possibilities for Scherzer at the sheer magnitude of contract being sought. The Cardinals, for instance, were linked to Scherzer this week, but given that they've never spent more than $97.5 million for a pitcher (and that was an internal extension for Adam Wainwright) and given that their club is considered fairly solid without Scherzer, such an outlay seems unlikely. I discussed the doubts associated with a variety of other clubs in that piece linked above.
The big question hanging in the industry is whether Scherzer will get the $200-milllion-plus package he's reportedly seeking.
Color me doubtful.
While he has less mileage on his arm than Jon Lester (who, remember, hauled in six years and $155 million with the Cubs), he's nevertheless 30 years old, attached to Draft-pick compensation and looking for the kind of guarantee only one other pitcher in history (Clayton Kershaw) has achieved. He's also doing so at a time when the game is flush with strong starting pitching statistics and increased emphasis on bullpen depth, so much so that at least one high-ranking executive recently opined to me: "Maybe we're at a point when starting pitching is not the overriding factor it once was."
None of this is to say Scherzer won't get paid plenty. And the possibility always remains that some team with strong revenues will get wind of a major injury within their ranks (especially as guys ramp up their pitching programs) and get desperate. That could, in fact, be what Scott Boras is banking on here.
But we've seen the market for other recent Boras clients slide. It happened to Stephen Drew and Kendrys Morales a year ago, and it happened to Kyle Lohse, Michael Bourn and Rafael Soriano (whose contract was heavily backloaded) the year before that. Scherzer is on a different level than those guys, but he's also looking for a nearly record-setting deal at a time of year when many ballclubs' budgets are solidified.
And so the January portion of the Hot Stove season revolves around Scherzer's search and the cloud of secrecy surrounding it. At some point, perhaps soon, the deal will be revealed. And again, most people seem to think he'll wind up the latest recipient of Tigers owner Mike Ilitch's enormous generosity. That would not be a shock.
What would be a shock, to most, is Scherzer-to-Houston.
But not to people who read this piece.
Anthony Castrovince is a Sports on Earth contributor and MLB.com columnist. Follow him on Twitter @Castrovince.