Potential Trade Packages, Landing Spots for Nationals Star Max Scherzer
It's not often a pitcher the caliber of Max Scherzer is available at the trade deadline.
Even at 37 years old, the three-time Cy Young winner is still one of the game's elite pitchers, boasting a 2.83 ERA, 0.89 WHIP and 142 strikeouts in 105 innings in the final season of a seven-year contract with the Washington Nationals.
With a 5-16 record in July entering Tuesday, the Nationals have slipped out of the National League East race, and they are poised to at least sell off their expiring contracts, with Scherzer atop that list.
The unique nature of his contract, which features significant deferred money and no actual salary for the 2022 season, will be one hurdle in any deal for Scherzer. Ken Rosenthal of The Athletic provided some details:
"The acquiring team would be responsible for the remainder of Scherzer’s $35 million salary for 2021 — about one-third. And that amount, because it is deferred entirely until ’28, would be valued at less than it is now. The acquiring team would not catch a similar break in its luxury-tax payroll, which is based on players' average annual salaries. The luxury-tax hit would be approximately $10 million, a figure that might discourage some clubs."
There is also the matter of Scherzer's 10-and-5 rights, which would allow him to block any trade, though he is open to waiving those no-trade rights with the caveat of preferring a West Coast team, according to Mark Feinsand of MLB.com.
That makes the Los Angeles Dodgers, San Diego Padres and San Francisco Giants obvious potential landing spots, but teams outside the West Coast should not be ruled out entirely. The Boston Red Sox, Houston Astros and Tampa Bay Rays are also part of the sweepstakes, based on a mix of speculation and recent reports.
Ahead we've provided all the latest rumors and a hypothetical trade proposal for each of those six contenders to swing a deal for Max Scherzer ahead of the deadline.
Before we get started, here are a few recent deadline deals for rental aces to provide some context for what fair return value might look like for the Washington Nationals:
2012 Deadline: Zack Greinke traded from Brewers to Angels
2015 Deadline: David Price traded from Tigers to Blue Jays
2015 Deadline: Johnny Cueto traded from Reds to Royals
2017 Deadline: Yu Darvish traded from Rangers to Dodgers
Return Package: OF Willie Calhoun (No. 92 MLB prospect, No. 5 LAD prospect), RHP A.J. Alexy, OF Brendon Davis
Boston Red Sox
To BOS: RHP Max Scherzer, RHP Daniel Hudson
To WAS: RHP Tanner Houck, RHP Brayan Bello, IF Cameron Cannon, RHP Eduard Bazardo
The Boston Red Sox are putting a lot of eggs in the Chris Sale basket if they don't land another quality starter at the trade deadline.
Slugger Triston Casas should be untouchable in trade talks this summer, and it's also unlikely second baseman of the future Jeter Downs will be available for a two-month rental, so that means the Red Sox will need to get creative.
Would they be willing to use controllable right-hander Tanner Houck as a centerpiece?
The 25-year-old has a 1.54 ERA in 35 innings at the MLB level the past two seasons, but he has been hampered by a flexor strain this year. He has five years of club control remaining with the potential to be a solid middle-of-the-rotation arm, but there is little question Scherzer would be an upgrade in 2021 if the Red Sox are serious about a title push.
The success that Houck has enjoyed in the majors could help the Red Sox get a deal done with a lesser secondary piece than what is laid out in the proposals to follow.
Right-hander Brayan Bello is enjoying a breakout season at Double-A with a 3.27 ERA, 1.15 WHIP and 77 strikeouts in 55 innings, and he is the other significant piece of this trade. The 22-year-old is a bit undersized and his stuff is not overpowering, but he's a prospect on the rise with some remaining projection.
Cameron Cannon is a high-floor middle infielder with a good chance to be an MLB contributor. Reliever Eduard Bazardo has late-inning stuff with a 60-grade fastball and 60-grade curveball, and little left to prove in the minors at the age of 25.
To HOU: RHP Max Scherzer
To WAS: IF Jeremy Pena, RHP Hunter Brown, OF Alex McKenna, C Scott Manea
Despite a 3.41 ERA from the starting rotation, good for the sixth-lowest mark in the majors, the Houston Astros are reportedly showing interest in Max Scherzer. With Jose Urquidy sidelined with shoulder discomfort, rookie Luis Garcia handling a bigger workload than expected and Framber Valdez dealing with some inconsistency after a strong start to the year, it's not surprising they are looking for help.
Infielder Jeremy Pena and right-hander Hunter Brown both checked in among the "Next 50" on Bleacher Report's updated top 100 prospect list earlier this month, and both would immediately become top-five prospects in the Washington Nationals system.
Pena, 23, is currently sidelined following wrist surgery. He hit .303/.385/.440 with 35 extra-base hits and 20 steals in 109 games between Single-A and High-A in 2019, and MLB.com called him the best defender in the Houston system.
Brown, 22, has an electric upper-90s fastball, a power curveball and a quality slider, and he has used that arsenal to tally 76 strikeouts in 49.1 innings at Double-A. With a strong 6'2", 212-pound frame, he looks the part of a future impact starter.
Outfielder Alex McKenna is hitting .296/.382/.603 with 14 home runs in 47 games between High-A and Double-A in his age-23 season. Catcher Scott Manea is a 25-year-old with an .861 OPS and 17 extra-base hits in 50 games at Double-A, to go along with solid receiving skills.
There's not an elite prospect in this package, at least not yet, but it's four quality pieces headlined by two guys who could crack top 100 lists in the future.
Los Angeles Dodgers
To LAD: RHP Max Scherzer, $5 million
To WAS: C Keibert Ruiz, OF Andy Pages, RHP Nick Robertson, RHP Guillermo Zuniga
There may be no more obvious prospect trade chip than Los Angeles Dodgers catcher Keibert Ruiz.
The 23-year-old is hitting .313/.385/.642 with 18 doubles, 16 home runs and 45 RBI at Triple-A and has polished his defensive game to an acceptable level, yet he remains firmly blocked by Will Smith at the MLB level with fellow top catching prospect Diego Cartaya also climbing the organization ranks.
Meanwhile, the Washington Nationals have nothing even remotely resembling a long-term answer at the catcher position.
The No. 56 prospect in B/R's latest top 100 update, Ruiz is the highest-rated prospect included in any of these hypothetical proposals, and that means a lighter package of complementary pieces.
Andy Pages is a 20-year-old outfielder with loud raw tools hitting .243/.363/.507 with 16 doubles, 18 home runs and 53 RBI in 72 games at High-A, and he is the other key prospect piece of this deal.
Nick Robertson (25 G, 3.89 ERA, 8.6 K/9 at Double-A) and Guillermo Zuniga (16 G, 3.28 ERA, 14.2 K/9 at Double-A) are both controllable relievers with a chance to develop into useful MLB bullpen pieces.
The Dodgers are already well over the top tier of the luxury tax penalty, meaning they'll be paying a 65 percent tax penalty on every dollar they add to their payroll. Scherzer has roughly $13.4 million remaining on his 2021 salary, so including $5 million in the deal would lessen that burden and allow the Nationals to pry loose an elite prospect in Ruiz.
San Diego Padres
To SD: RHP Max Scherzer
To WAS: OF Joshua Mears, RHP Justin Lange, RHP Reiss Knehr, IF Eguy Rosario
Similar to the Houston Astros offer, this return package does not include a consensus top-100 prospect...yet.
The San Diego Padres have enough prospect depth to swing a blockbuster deal without parting with anyone from the group of CJ Abrams, MacKenzie Gore, Luis Campusano and Robert Hassell.
If the Nationals value ceiling over MLB readiness, a package built around outfielder Joshua Mears and right-hander Justin Lange will be extremely appealing.
Mears, 20, has huge power potential and is hitting .258/.403/.542 with 13 home runs and 32 RBI in 58 games at Single-A.
"He destroys baseballs with plus-plus raw power and has already posted exit velocities as high as 117 mph— which would have been fourth-highest in the major leagues in 2020," wrote Baseball America of the young slugger.
Lange, 19, was the No. 34 overall pick in the 2020 draft. The 6'4", 220-pound right-hander touched 100 mph with his fastball in the spring leading up to the draft, and his ceiling is as high as any prep arm from the 2020 draft class.
Right-hander Reiss Knehr is a high-floor, MLB-ready starter who could step into Scherzer's spot in the Nationals rotation. Eguy Rosario is hitting .278/.369/.464 with 24 extra-base hits in 66 games at Double-A, and the 21-year-old offers appealing defensive versatility.
It's a high-ceiling package that could add some impactful depth to a thin Nationals system.
San Francisco Giants
To SF: RHP Max Scherzer
To WAS: OF Luis Matos, C Patrick Bailey, RHP Caleb Kilian, RHP Kervin Castro
An effective starting rotation has been a surprising strength for the San Francisco Giants this season with a 3.31 ERA that ranks fifth in the majors.
However, with Kevin Gausman stumbling a bit since the All-Star break and both Aaron Sanchez and Sammy Long on the injured list, staying the course with the staff comes with some clear risk.
Marco Luciano is untouchable, and both Joey Bart and Heliot Ramos should be as well for a rental, but there is plenty of other high-ceiling talent in a deep San Francisco farm system. The Giants are one of the teams that can afford to absorb all of Scherzer's remaining contract, which means they won't need to part with as big of a prospect return.
The centerpiece could be the Nationals' choice of outfielders Hunter Bishop and Luis Matos.
An unassuming 5'11", 160-pound outfielder who was signed as part of the same 2018 international class that included Luciano, Matos exploded onto the top prospect scene in 2019 and is backing up his strong rookie ball performance by hitting .305/.341/.466 with 28 extra-base hits and 16 steals as a 19-year-old at Single-A.
Pairing him with 2020 first-round pick Patrick Bailey would give the Nationals a potential catcher of the future, and one who should move quickly through the minors thanks to his overall polish.
Right-hander Caleb Kilian is enjoying a breakout season in his age-24 campaign, posting a 1.90 ERA, 0.78 WHIP and a 90-to-8 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 80.2 innings between High-A and Double-A, and there is still physical projection remaining in his 6'4", 180-pound frame. Rounding out the package with right-hander Kervin Castro adds an MLB-ready power reliever.
Tampa Bay Rays
To TB: RHP Max Scherzer, all remaining financial obligations
To WAS: IF Vidal Brujan
The Tampa Bay Rays have a team payroll of $74.1 million this season, a figure that checks in 27th in the majors, according to Spotrac. That cost-conscious approach makes taking on Scherzer's deferred salary a tough sell, but it doesn't eliminate the Rays from the running.
Despite those financial hurdles, the Rays have already had "preliminary discussions" with the Nationals regarding Scherzer, according to Jeff Passan of ESPN.
Let's think outside the box a bit on this one.
The Rays' contention window is wide open and they have a loaded farm system, but they likely don't want to spend what it will cost to pay Scherzer.
If the Nationals were to absorb all remaining salary obligations for their longtime ace, the Rays might be willing to part with anyone from their top prospect list not named Wander Franco or Shane Baz for a chance to land the market's top arm.
The Nationals would essentially be buying a top prospect from the Rays for the financial equivalent of Scherzer's remaining salary.
Vidal Brujan (No. 17), Xavier Edwards (No. 65), Cole Wilcox (No. 93) and Josh Lowe (No. 95) all ranked among the league's top 100 prospects in our latest update, and they would all have a case for the No. 1 prospect spot in the Washington farm system.
It would be a unique deal, but it's something worth considering.