The Washington Nationals have added to what was the best pitching staff in baseball last season by agreeing to a seven-year deal with Max Scherzer reportedly worth $210 million.
Ken Rosenthal of FOX Sports reports that half of the money ($105M) is deferred from 2022-28, making Scherzer the modern day Bobby Bonilla. He'll essentially receive $15 million annually for the next 14 years. He will also receive a $50 million signing bonus to be paid out over time for tax purposes. Assuming Scherzer maintains his home outside of Washington, D.C., he'll benefit from the lack of state income taxes for out-of-state residents.
The contract runs through the 2021 season. It was reported Sunday night that the Nationals and another Major League team were negotiating with Scherzer, a client of Scott Boras.
While the Nationals were mentioned as in the mix for Scherzer over a majority of the offseason, Jayson Stark of ESPN reported that the club would have to clear payroll in order to afford the right-hander. Jordan Zimmermann and Ian Desmond have been mentioned as players Washington could move to clear space.
There is expected to be some fallout in the wake of this agreement, but it remains to be seen what exactly general manager Mike Rizzo will do.
Desmond has already been mentioned in trade rumors, but the Nationals may have lost any leverage they had now that Scherzer is already in the mix. Washington acquired Yunel Escobar from the Oakland Athletics last week, creating a scenario in which they could survive without Desmond. Escobar could slide over to shortstop with Danny Espinosa manning second base.
Zimmermann, who has been the rotation's anchor, is a natural trade candidate with free agency looming. The 28-year-old is in the final year of his contract and the Nationals have unsuccessfully tried on at least two occasions to sign him to a contract extension. When the subject was first broached, the two sides settled on a two-year, $24 million deal that will pay him $16.5 million in 2015.
For the time being, Scherzer joins a rotation that also includes Zimmermann, Stephen Strasburg, Gio Gonzalez and Doug Fister. Tanner Roark, 28, appears to be the odd man out for now.
If the Nationals want to make strong run at the World Series, trading Roark might be a better play than moving Zimmerman. Roark won't hit the free agent market until 2020 and is coming off a breakout season that saw him make 31 starts and pitch to a 2.85 ERA, 1.092 WHIP and 138 strikeouts against just 39 walks.
Matt Williams now has an embarrassment of riches at his disposal, regardless of whether a starter is dealt before Opening Day. Washington's starting rotation had a 3.04 ERA last season, far-and-away the best in baseball.
The Nationals lost to the eventual champion San Francisco Giants in the National League Division Series this past fall, but the pitching staff wasn't to blame. The four-game series was devoid of offense with no more than five combined runs scored in a single game. In 44 innings, Washington's pitchers had a 1.23 ERA.
The rich may be even richer in that respect, but it could be argued that Rizzo ignored holes that exist on offense.
Escobar, who hit .258/.324/.340 last season, is Washington's biggest offensive addition. They took a flyer on Dan Uggla, but they won't be counting on the struggling infielder to provide an immediate shot in the arm.
Washington scored 4.23 runs per game in 2014, which ranked ninth in baseball and third in the NL. They finished fourth among NL clubs in home runs, on-base percentage and OPS. While the offense would seem to be in good shape, Adam LaRoche, their best power-hitter, left to sign with the Chicago White Sox.
There is a strong link between Rizzo and Scherzer. Scherzer was a first-round pick of Rizzo back in 2006 when he was an executive with the Arizona Diamondbacks. Scherzer makes the Nationals even stronger favorites in the NL East and sets them up for postseason success as long as the offense comes up with the timely hits they didn't against the Giants.
Scherzer was going to get a lengthy deal from someone, but a seven-year deal for a pitcher that will turn 31 in July is incredibly risky. The four most recent seven-year deals for hurlers went to Barry Zito, CC Sabathia, Felix Hernandez and Clayton Kershaw.
Zito, who signed what was then the largest contract ever for a pitcher back in 2006 with the Giants, was 28 when he landed the deal. We all know how that turned out. The deal will forever be listed as one of the worst contracts in baseball history.
The New York Yankees handed Sabathia a seven-year deal in 2008 when he was 28 as well. The left-hander helped lead the Yankees to a World Series title in his first season, but he has struggled mightily in each of the last two seasons. Injuries have been an issue as Sabathia posted ERAs of 4.78 and 5.28 in 2013 and 2014, respectively.
Hernandez inked his deal with the Seattle Mariners before the 2013 season. He turned 27 that April and the early returns have been tremendous. Kershaw received a $215 contract from the Los Angeles Dodgers last January just a few months before he turned 26.
Scherzer is older than all four of those, which doesn't bode well for the second-half of the contract. Boras likes to point out the lack of wear-and-tear his client has for a 30-year-old, but there is still concern about how an athlete in his mid-30s will hold up to the rigors of a 200-inning season.
Grade for Nationals: C
The Nationals should receive good returns from the 2013 Cy Young winner early on. Scherzer has finished among the top eight pitchers in WAR in each of the last three seasons and the Missouri native should have an easier time without the designated hitter. It also helps that he'll regularly face below-average offenses. The Atlanta Braves, Miami Marlins, New York Mets and Philadelphia Phillies all ranked in the bottom half of baseball in runs scored last season.
As is the case with any huge contract, the future financial blow will be diminished if the Nationals win a championship over the next three seasons. With Bryce Harper, Anthony Rendon, Stephen Strasburg and others entering what should be their best seasons, the time is now in Washington, D.C.
Scherzer bet on himself when he and Boras turned down a $144 million offer from the Detroit Tigers in March, risking an injury or poor season that could have lessened his value as a free agent.
The decision turned out to be a brilliant one as he gets an additional season and approximately $50 million more after going 18-5 with a 3.15 ERA and 1.18 WHIP in his final season with the Tigers. He's a year removed from a 2.90 ERA and has amassed 492 strikeouts over the last two seasons.
Grade for Scherzer: A
Can you truly criticize an athlete for a deal that offers long-term security on and off the field?
Scherzer not only ensures himself a career through age 37, but also sets his family up for generations and guarantees a huge salary long into the next decade. The move from Detroit to Washington also makes sense for his career. As mentioned, he'll face pitchers three times per outing instead of the professional hitters he faced in the American League.
The Nationals also give him a better shot a deep playoff run, if only because his new division is much less competitive. The Tigers figure to have stiff competition in the AL Central, while Washington won the NL East by 17 games last season -- the largest margin in the Major Leagues.
Scherzer leaves behind Justin Verlander, Miguel Cabrera and Victor Martinez in Detroit, but joins a younger cast of stars in Harper, Strasburg and Rendon.
The biggest shoe of the winter has finally dropped. It's late in the offseason, but there are still aftershocks to be felt. James Shields is next in line to sign a huge contract and Mike Rizzo's phone lines figure to be rather busy in the coming weeks. The Nationals have added another ace, but likely aren't done retooling.