If you think there's been an inordinate number of zeroes thrown at starting pitchers this winter, just wait until Max Scherzer hits the market next year. He'll have the goods to demand one of the richest pitching contracts in history, and he'll have plenty of suitors willing to sign up.
For the moment, Scherzer is still the property of the Detroit Tigers, who recently cleared some money for an extension by trading Prince Fielder. It's not a given that Scherzer will hit the market next winter.
However, here's this from ESPN's Jayson Stark:
#Tigers are telling teams they're not optimistic about getting an extension done with Max Scherzer but have no plans to deal him.— Jayson Stark (@jaysonst) December 11, 2013
Jeff Passan of Yahoo! Sports has heard that Scherzer is actually "definitely in play" in trade talks. Take that for what it's worth, but it goes without saying that a trade is only happening if the Tigers see zero chance of extending Scherzer.
Either way, Scherzer hitting free agency does seem like a fair bet, and it would mean the market getting something it doesn't have this year: a top-of-the-rotation starter still in his prime.
Here's what Scherzer has done over the last two seasons, with data courtesy of FanGraphs:
That 11.0 WAR ranks fourth behind Justin Verlander, Felix Hernandez and Clayton Kershaw. They're arguably the best the game has, so it looks good on Scherzer that he's been right there with them.
Furthermore, the WAR Scherzer has accumulated over the last two seasons is more than any free-agent starter for this year's market has/had accumulated over the last three seasons.
Per FanGraphs, the cream of the crop by 2011-2013 WAR looks like this:
- Roy Halladay: 9.7 WAR
- Hiroki Kuroda: 9.7 WAR
- Dan Haren: 9.4 WAR
- Bartolo Colon: 9.1 WAR
Halladay just retired. Haren's fallen from ace status after two rough seasons. Kuroda and Colon are good, but Kuroda was only ever in the market for a one-year deal, and Colon may not end up doing better. Kuroda's old at 38, but Colon is even older at 40.
At 29 years old and only through his age-28 season, Scherzer would be a god on this year's market. And while next year's collection is set to include Jon Lester, Justin Masterson, Homer Bailey and possibly (but probably not) Clayton Kershaw, all Scherzer has to do to stand out is be himself in 2014.
The Steamer projections see him doing just that. Via FanGraphs, Scherzer's 2014 projections are:
Note: Sorry, Steamer doesn't do xFIP projections.
That 4.2 WAR places fourth among the WARs projected for starters in 2014. Conservative though its projections may be, Steamer does see Scherzer being elite once again next year.
The last elite starting pitcher to hit the market was Zack Greinke last winter, and he ended up with a six-year, $147 million contract. The former Cy Young winner got that following a three-year stretch that looked like this:
Not bad stuff, all things considered. But if we compare what Greinke's three-year stretch prior to free agency looked like to what Scherzer's could look like, we see:
*This is the average of Scherzer's 2012 and 2013 FIPs and his projected 2014 FIP, which is the best we can do.
It's pretty close, but one of these things does look better than the other. Scherzer could head into free agency with more recent success working for him than Greinke had when he entered free agency. That would work in his favor.
The catch is that Scherzer would be a year older than Greinke was, but that probably wouldn't stop him from getting as many as six years due to his (likely) superior recent track record. Besides which, Cliff Lee got five years coming off his age-31 season, Scherzer getting six years following his age-29 season is absolutely possible.
Regarding dollars, the $147 million Greinke got would likely only be a starting point.
Verlander and Hernandez have since signed contract extensions that have upped the ante for elite pitchers. With help from the new national TV money, what this year's market is doing to the price of starting pitching would be a factor as well. Ricky Nolasco signed for over $12 million per year. Matt Garza, Ervin Santana and Ubaldo Jimenez could all get $15 million per year. Maybe more, which would be much to Scherzer's satisfaction.
BOLD TEXT TO GET YOUR ATTENTION: All told, a solid guess for a free-agent contract for Scherzer would be something in the $26-28 million range over six years, meaning a total value somewhere between $156 million and $168 million. The ultimate deal-maker could be an option for a seventh year that could push the total package north of $180 million.
As for which clubs could be willing to deal with Scherzer, here's a list of candidates:
- Boston Red Sox
- New York Yankees
- New York Mets
- Los Angeles Dodgers
- Texas Rangers
- Seattle Mariners
- Chicago Cubs
Even if they retain Lester, the Red Sox will still have Ryan Dempster, Jake Peavy and David Ortiz (over $40 million in 2014 salaries) coming off the books. Also, John Lackey will pitch for the major league minimum in 2015. While handing out long-term contracts doesn't appear to be Ben Cherington's thing, he'll have excuses to make an exception for Scherzer.
The Yankees will have Hiroki Kuroda and Derek Jeter coming off the books to free up close to $30 million, and Alex Rodriguez's contract will be into its cheaper years. Scherzer would easily fit in their rotation, and maybe on their books as well.
The Mets, meanwhile, can't keep their payroll under $100 million forever. And though 2014 could be a rocky year, adding Scherzer would lead to a potentially lethal rotation of him, Matt Harvey, Zack Wheeler and Noah Syndergaard for 2015 and beyond.
The Dodgers will have close to $30 million available after shedding Josh Beckett and Dan Haren. Here's thinking all of that will be going toward an extension for Kershaw, but, well, I don't think it's wise to count the Dodgers out on any big-name player.
What will Max Scherzer be worth if he hits free agency?
The Rangers are another team that could have a rough time squeezing Scherzer in, especially after adding Fielder. But they will have some money coming off the books in Joakim Soria and (probably) Alex Rios. Also, Adrian Beltre's contract is nearing its end.
If the Mariners don't sign someone to slot behind King Felix and Hisashi Iwakuma this winter, Scherzer could be their guy next year. They're not poised to shed a lot of money, but they're still going to have a lot of financial wiggle room thanks to their new TV deal and incentive to win now while Robinson Cano is still in his prime.
The Cubs are a payroll giant waiting to happen, and after 2014 they'll be free of payments for Alfonso Soriano. If a mix of youthful talent and Rick Renteria's guiding hand leads to a promising season in 2014, they might view Scherzer as a next step.
Aside from these clubs, there's bound to be a mystery team. There's always a mystery team, and they do have a way of leaping from the shadows when star players are involved.
And that, obviously, is what Scherzer shall be if he hits the market next winter. If he does his thing in 2014, he'll be well established as one of the best pitchers in baseball, which is certainly a good thing to be in a day and age when the price for even mediocre pitching is on the rise.
A lot can happen between now and next winter. Maybe Scherzer will sign an extension with the Tigers, thus negating this conversation and rendering pitching-needy GMs disappointed.
But if he doesn't choose to sign an extension, don't blame him. Scherzer can see the zeroes that are out there this winter as well as any of us can, and he must know two things:
That they'll be out in force again next winter, and that they'll want him.
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