For the Detroit Tigers, Max Scherzer's success is a catch-22. If the 29-year-old continues to dominate American League hitters, a $200 million contract could be awaiting him on the open market next winter.
Of course, every shutdown start—much like what we saw against the Kansas City Royals (8 IP, 4 H, 0 ER, 7 SO, 1 BB) in his first outing of 2014—will likely produce a win for a franchise carrying the weight of World Series aspirations.
Despite closer Joe Nathan blowing a victory for Scherzer on Wednesday, the hard-throwing ace is poised for a successful season after a headline-rich spring. In March, Scherzer turned heads by rejecting a six-year, $144 million contract extension offer from the Tigers, per Fox Sports' Jon Morosi.
Clearly, the Tigers were upset and expressed that sentiment in a statement released when news of the contract talks leaked, per The Associated Press (via Fox Sports):
The Detroit Tigers have made a substantial, long-term contract extension offer to Max Scherzer that would have placed him among the highest paid pitchers in baseball, and the offer was rejected. As we have reiterated, it has been the organization's intent to extend Max's contract and keep him in a Tigers uniform well beyond the 2014 season. While this offer would have accomplished that, the ballclub's focus remains on the start of the upcoming season, and competing for a World Championship. Moving forward there will be no further in-season negotiation and the organization will refrain from commenting on this matter.
With that, an edict was put forth from team to player: Prove your worth.
With one successful start already, Scherzer looks to dominate throughout the 2014 season. In fact, he could be on the cusp of even bigger stardom and unparalleled riches.
Prior to the opening of the season, Scherzer's last 56 regular-season starts—dating back to May 20, 2012—have been consistently excellent. Over that span, the reigning AL Cy Young award winner has pitched himself to a 2.95 ERA, tossed 360.1 innings, notched a 463/98 strikeout-to-walk ratio and posted a 35-7 win-loss record.
Although he's not as young as rising phenoms like Miami's Jose Fernandez (21) or Pittsburgh's Gerrit Cole (23), Scherzer's age (30 in July) shouldn't fool you into thinking that he's not still growing as a starter, or that decline is on the way anytime soon.
With every start, it seems that Scherzer grows as a pitcher.
In his opening assignment of 2014, command was evasive early.
After beginning the game with a walk, Scherzer allowed the Royals to stage a first-inning rally by putting runners at the corners with only one out. In the past, falling behind 3-0 in the count to a hitter like Billy Butler would have been the tipping point for a big inning.
Those days are long gone.
After inducing a double-play ball from the Royals' designated hitter, Scherzer cruised through the next six innings, barely allowing Kansas City to show an offensive pulse.
While command of his fastball fell by the wayside early, the veteran located his secondary pitches. That, more than velocity or pure talent, makes Scherzer's trajectory so interesting. On a start-by-start basis, he seems to get better equipped to handle adversity.
In the eighth inning, Kansas City notched a leadoff double. With the Tigers offense unable to generate more than one run off Royals starter Jason Vargas, Scherzer was tasked with making the slim lead stand up against an upstart division rival.
After two strikeouts and a fly ball to left, the Royals left the inning down and dejected. Scherzer departed after 110 pitches, taking with him the aura of the AL's best pitcher.
Scherzer's pitch counts will be mentioned among his best traits heading into what should be a lucrative free-agent payday. As Jeff Passan of Yahoo Sports pointed out in the aftermath of the contract drama, Scherzer's age isn't as important as his total pitch count:
When Kershaw signed his seven-year, $215 million deal, he did so with 18,643 regular-season pitches thrown. That's on the low side. Hernandez got seven years despite 24,872 pitches, Verlander seven with 25,424, Sabathia seven after 26,252. Scherzer's total after six major league seasons: 17,316.
With talent, health and bullets left in his right arm, Scherzer is poised to pitch at a high level for a long, long time.
Expect a huge season in 2014 and a bidding war to commence next winter. When it does, $144 million might be the starting point for negations, not a final offer.