Max Scherzer bet on himself and the condition of his arm when he rejected the Tigers' six-year, $144 million extension advances a year ago, and that bet paid off handsomely. Now, it's the Washington Nationals taking an even bigger gamble on Scherzer, with a seven-year contract worth a reported $210 million -- a record-breaking contract for a free-agent pitcher that, one way or another, will shape a good deal of their decision-making both now and well down the road.
Look, we know how this plays out in the long run. Seven-year contracts for 30-year-old pitchers are written on papier-mâché, not iron and steel. Though his workload has not been at a level of fellow 30-year-old Jon Lester, Scherzer's mechanics spook some evaluators. And whether that's fair or not, his salary is bound to become a hurdle eventually.
What makes this signing fascinating, though, is that it is not only a gargantuan commitment to a starting pitcher at a time when the value of preeminent starting pitching has, in some ways, been watered-down by the overall decline in offense, but it's a gargantuan commitment to a starting pitcher on a team that was already loaded in the rotation.
Scherzer strengthens an obvious strength. He doesn't make Yunel Escobar's shift to second base any easier. And barring a major rise in his career complete-game total (currently at one), he doesn't shore up the ninth inning, either.
But the Nats have more than just 2015 to consider. Starters Jordan Zimmermann and Doug Fister, shortstop Ian Desmond and center fielder Denard Span are all pending free agents, and past attempts to extend Zimmermann and Desmond have gone nowhere.
So signing Scherzer is the Nats' rotation insurance policy, in a sense, and it gives them the flexibility to address the future look of that starting group any number of ways.
Here are the options for the team's next move:
1. Trade Zimmermann or Fister
All winter, many have speculated that the Nats, who are of course no stranger to The Boras Corporation (see: Jayson Werth, Bryce Harper, Stephen Strasburg and Anthony Rendon), could be swayed to sign Scherzer and then part with one of their pending free-agent starters.
So here we are.
Per reports from Fox Sports and Yahoo, Scherzer's contract is heavily backloaded, paying him a $15 million average salary through 2021 with another $15 million per year for another seven years after the contract "expires." Given their 2015 salary obligations, the Nats were looking at roughly a $130 million payroll (similar to 2014, which was a reported $134.7 million on Opening Day) before signing Scherzer. Even the more manageable $15 million figure (versus the $30 million in average annual value, which does count toward their luxury tax total) still forces a rise in payroll, obviously.
The Nats could partially offset this by moving either Zimmermann ($16.5 million salary for '15) or Fister ($11.4M) in advance of their potential free-agent departures. It's not as if they wouldn't still field an elite rotation. As it stands, Tanner Roark, whose ERA (2.85) and ballpark-adjusted ERA+ (131) in 31 starts last season were a revelation, is the odd man out, potentially banished to the bullpen.
A New York Post report Monday morning said the Nats are planning to keep Zimmermann. So take that for what it's worth (none of these reports are binding, obviously).
While Zimmermann's power arm is the more valuable of the two, either he or Fister could fetch a decent haul. One comparable to keep in mind is Jeff Samardzija. For six months of the Shark, the White Sox sent the A's three players who all will or could play the entirety of 2015 in the big leagues (middle infielder Marcus Semien, right-hander Chris Bassitt and catcher Josh Phegley), as well as corner infield prospect Rangel Ravelo.
Just for the sake of discussion (courtesy of Baseball Reference), these are the three-year ERA+ marks of the players we're talking about here:
So, no, it's not totally inconceivable that even Fister could fetch a similar package to Samardzija, and Zimmermann, in particular, is capable of landing at least one bona fide top prospect. For a win-now club, Zimmermann would be a far more affordable buy than Cole Hamels, with arguably every bit as much immediate upside to your rotation.
The Yankees, Blue Jays, Red Sox, Angels, Marlins, Cardinals, Brewers, Giants and Padres are all contenders (or perceived contenders) who would probably have the pieces and the need to pull off a swap for a short-term rotation boost. The Brewers actually just became a somewhat interesting club in this regard after agreeing to the Yovani Gallardo trade with Texas on Sunday (and Zimmermann, for whatever it's worth, is a Wisconsinite).
And remember: If any of those teams would rather just pay cold, hard cash for a starting arm, James Shields is still out there.
2. Trade Desmond
This would be another way to cut some immediate costs (he'll make $11 million this year) in order to bring the 2015 payroll to a more manageable level. The Nats have Escobar on hand to take over at short, and they could give Danny Espinosa another shot at second after his bounce-back 2014. Desmond, who seems intent on testing his free-agent worth, would certainly bring back one and perhaps two top-tier prospects.
I mean, that's how this swap would be sold. But let's just state the obvious, again, say moving Desmond at this junction would be dumb on a number of levels, from a leadership and from a production standpoint. It would weaken the Nats' offensive output at both middle infield spots, hurt them defensively at short and put all the more pressure on the new-look rotation.
3. Trade Strasburg, Gio Gonzalez or Roark
On the surface, each of these feel like a real reach for a variety of reasons, the most prominent of which is simple: Why double-down on the long-term shakeup of a strong rotation that could already be losing two of its most prominent pieces in the next 12 months?
Now, granted, there could be incentive for the Nats to move Strasburg before his price escalates significantly. He just agreed to a $7.4 million salary for 2015, and he'll have one more arbitration year in 2016 before reaching free agency. He, like Scherzer, is a Boras guy who figures to seek top-of-the-market money, and it's going to be difficult for Washington to carry two rotation members making top-of-the-market money.
Strasburg might bring back a package similar to those being discussed for Cole Hamels right now. Yes, he's under contractual control for half as many years, but the guaranteed money is a fraction of the $100 million Hamels is guaranteed through 2018. So you can go right to 1A on the prospects lists and dream about packages built around catcher Blake Swihart (Boston), outfielder Randal Grichuk (St. Louis) or outfielder Hunter Renfroe (San Diego).
It might all be just a dream, though, because the Nats are not nearly in the same position as the Phillies and really don't have a strong incentive to move Strasburg right now. If moving money is the main motivation, Zimmermann and Fister make more sense.
As for Gonzalez and Roark, they are included here mainly for the sake of completeness. Gonzalez is coming off an injury effected regression in 2014 (limiting his value), he's the lone lefty in this rotation and he's under contractual control through 2018 (with a team option for 2017 and a vesting option for '18). And with Scherzer signed, Roark, even without an obvious rotation fit at the moment, is the very kind of guy this organization needs to protect in that he's under bare-bones contractual control. He won't be arbitration-eligible until 2017.
So all the way around, this option feels unlikely.
4. Stand pat with a stud starting group
This one feels right. The Nats can carry him without hitting the luxury tax threshold, and they'd go into 2015 with the aforementioned flexibility and the ability to apply it however the season itself dictates.
A super rotation of Scherzer, Zimmermann, Strasburg, Gonzalez and Fister guarantees you nothing, of course. It's not even totally unprecedented in recent history to have a super rotation in the NL East. Remember that breathless anticipation before the Phillies' 2011 season, snuffed out by Adam Wainwright and Co. in the first round of October? Sure, I'll take Fister or Gio as my No. 5 over Joe Blanton (the Ringo of that Philly super group), but you've still got to hit and close games, and the Nats have questions in both areas, especially with Adam LaRoche departing as a free agent and Jayson Werth coming off shoulder surgery.
But that fearsome five-some could sure outpitch a lot of mistakes. And the glaring fact of the matter right now is that, even with LaRoche gone and Werth on the mend, the Nats don't have obvious major league holes to fill in the trading game (unless they become the third team this winter to trade Escobar and target more of a long-term fit up the middle). Any trade of Zimmermann or Fister or the like would target long-term talent, and that's enticing in its own sort of way. But the Nats signed Scherzer in part because they appreciate the immediacy of their situation and the need to capitalize upon it.
If they keep the five intact, the Nats would be well-protected against the season's whims. For one, pitchers are born to break, so the Nats would be guarded against the possibility of a crack in the foundation. Furthermore, roster depth itself is transient concept in this game, and all it takes is a Werth setback, and Ryan Zimmerman DL return, Bryce Harper running into another wall or Anthony Rendon straining an oblique to make a new need apparent. While Zimmermann and Fister won't have the same trade value in July that they have today (especially in a year so loaded with pending free-agent starters who could be moved before the trade deadline), either would still be valuable enough for the Nats to patch a temporary hole or two.
Or the Nats can keep both guys the entirety of the six-month season, hope they can pitch their way through October and reap the draft picks should Zimmermann and/or Fister leave. It's not an unworkable scenario. With a strong stash of young arms in the system (Lucas Giolito, Erick Fedde, A.J. Cole, Reynaldo Lopez) and newly acquired shortstop depth (Escobar and prospect Trea Turner, who will arrive in June) should Desmond walk, the Nats are pretty well-situated for the short- and long-term.
Scherzer is a luxury item for the Nats in a lot of ways, but he's one this franchise can afford. And though his arrival sparks many questions about the Nats' next move, the easiest answer might also be the simplest:
Let that rotation roll.
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Anthony Castrovince is a Sports on Earth contributor and has been an MLB.com reporter and columnist since 2004. Follow him on Twitter @Castrovince.