Max Scherzer to the Nationals: Smart Move, But Guarantees Nothing in October

By Mike Cardillo

At some point over the last week or so, the Washington Nationals braintrust must have been sitting around, contemplating the human condition — or reading some Scott Boras-provided literature — when someone pulled a Walter Sobchak and blurted out, “Fuck it dudes, let’s sign Max Scherzer.” Early Monday word broke that the Nationals agreed to a seven-year contract with the former American League Cy Young Award winner. Terms of the deal haven’t been made public, but let’s work under the assumption Scherzer wound up with more total compensation than the six-year, $155 million pact the Cubs gave Jon Lester earlier this winter.

I’m a Tigers fan, so I’ve watched Scherzer for the last five years closely. While I’ll certainly miss Scherzer’s lethal changeup every fifth day, I’d be lying if I didn’t say I’m relieved Tigers owner Mike Ilitch and GM Dave Dombrowski avoided signing another Boras client to a massive deal, given the enormous contracts are already on the Tigers’ payroll. In 2015, Detroit will sorely miss Scherzer if only for his durability that produced 32+ starts per season since 2011. Oh right, they’ll miss his double-digit strikeouts per-9 and the feeling that whenever Scherzer took the mound the team was probably going to win a ballgame that day.

The Nationals, like the Tigers, are in win-now mode. Bovada already moved Washington’s World Series odds to 7-to-1, the best in baseball. In the weak-ish National League East, the Nationals are probably now the safest bet to make the playoffs and chase 100 wins. Washington went 96-66 last year and Scherzer was a six-win pitcher via WAR, so the math is simple, especially since you’d project his numbers to improve in the National League.

For the time being Scherzer gives Washington a very nice rotation (on paper) with Stephen Strasburg, Jordan Zimmerman, Gio Gonzalez, and Doug Fister, with Tanner Roark — a five-win player with a .2.85 ERA in 2014 — presumably sliding into the bullpen.

There are two ways to look this. One, if Washington keeps everybody, that’s a nice rotation for 2015. That said, Zimmerman and Fister are free agents after 2015 and Strasburg is after 2016. All three will end up seeking big contracts on the open market, so Schezer seems like surplus parts now, but will likely end up the anchor of the Nats rotation for the rest of the decade. Reasonably Washington isn’t going to keep all three players, knowing that down the road, Bryce Harper is going to want a couple wheelbarrow’s full of cash, if the team can’t lock him up long-term before he’s a free agent in 2019.

Of course, if Ken Rosenthal’s tweet below is accurate, Scherzer signed a team-friendly deal that will make re-signing some these players more reasonable since his contract is back-loaded, with almost $105 million deferred. Boras still got Scherzer $66 million more than the Tigers offered in 2014, so once again, hire him as your agent if you’re a professional baseball player.

All winter, Zimmerman has been the subject of trade rumors, but once you go all-in with Scherzer, you’re probably better off holding onto him for 2015 and then letting him sign elsewhere in the winter. Is another team going to want to give away a good prospect or two for a one-year rental? Beyond that, aside from the bullpen, the Nationals starting lineup is fairly stacked, regardless of what they end up doing with shortstop Ian Desmond.

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Long-term, the Nationals look like they’re happier to hitch their wagon to Scherzer, 30, over Zimmerman, 28, when the two pitchers are very similar in career ERA+ (Scherzer 117, Zimmermann 120) and FIP (Scherzer 3.39, Zimmermann 3.31). Scherzer is a better strikeout guy than Zimmerman and, as stated above, logic says his numbers improve in the National League. Baseball salaries keep going up so whatever Scherzer is making in his age 35-37 seasons seems crazy now, but probably less so as time passes.

Add up the Washington roster and throw Scherzer into the mix and, yeah, this is a loaded team that should be thinking World Series every day from now until October.  Elite, everyday starting pitching is what propels you to the postseason, but once the short series begin its often a crapshoot. Madison Bumgarner aside, the starters in the World Series were mostly poor. The Royals made the Series with mediocre starters and an elite bullpen. This comes and goes, since there isn’t a system guaranteed to get you the necessary 11 wins in October.

As a Tigers fan, I’ve seen firsthand how an amazing starting rotation can be undone in the postseason by a suspect bullpen, producing a sum total of zero World Series championships (since 1984). The Nationals pen isn’t the tire fire that that Tigers have rolled out in recent seasons. Drew Storen is solid enough and maybe Roark is an excellent swingman once he’s out of the rotation.

Remember the amazing 2013 ALCS? Remember the game when David Ortiz hit the grand slam? Torii Hunter fell into the bullpen. The cop celebrated. Yeah, that one. Scherzer started that game and went seven innings, allowing one run on 108 pitches. When he left the game after the seventh, the Tigers were ahead 5-1 and, via FanGraphs, had a 96 percent chance to win.

Source: FanGraphs

We know how it ended. (Yes, as a Tigers fan I’m still exceedingly bitter about this turn of events.)

This idea will never ever happen, but I’ll throw it out there anyway. Over his seven year career, Scherzer’s made 210 starts in the regular and postseason. How many complete games does he have? One. It’s not all that surprising since he’s a strikeout, max-effort guy who is usually at 100 pitches by the sixth or seventh inning. If the Nationals are in the playoffs and they haven’t improved their bullpen during the season, why not consider Scherzer as a 2-3 inning lights-out weapon out of the pen. This might be the only way to ensure Washington’s new, pricey investment is getting high-leverage outs when it counts.

I know we’re not supposed to talk about luck, but sometimes in sports you simply need things to break your way — something impossible to predict, even in our increasingly analytical world. The Nationals, by acquiring Scherzer, are simply moving to better insure they are one of the entries into that lottery.