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Some (way) late thoughts about the Nats signing of Max Scherzer

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The Nationals made a huge splash this offseason when they signed Max Scherzer to a 7 year, $210 million contract. I'm a little late in my assessment of what the deal means for the franchise moving forward, but I can only keep my mouth shut for so long...

The Nats spent big money to bring Max Scherzer to Washington.  Was it worth it?
The Nats spent big money to bring Max Scherzer to Washington. Was it worth it?
Brad Barr-USA TODAY Sports

Sorry... I'm not going to throw a bunch of stats at you today.  Instead, I'm going to get up on my soapbox and just share some opinions.  We all know that Scherzer, the 2013 AL Cy Young winner, is a fantastic pitcher.

If you're anything, like me, admit it.  When the Nationals signed Max Scherzer to a 7 year, $210 million deal this offseason, your initial reaction was, "Huh?"  The Nationals led the majors last season with a 3.03 staff ERA in 2014 (Seattle was second at 3.17).  They led the majors with a 3.04 starters' ERA in 2014 (the Dodgers were second at 3.20).  All five starters from last year are under contract for 2015, so it wasn't exactly like they needed to upgrade their 2015 rotation by going out and signing the biggest deal of the offseason.

Of course, first impressions are just that.  Time and a closer look at the details tend to change one's perspective on things.  In the case of the Scherzer deal, I've come to the conclusion that it was a fantastic deal for the long-term health of the franchise.  Before I go into details on what I think the deal actually means for the Nationals moving forward, let's take a look at what some of the national media had to say.

Worst contract of the offseason?

The move certainly hasn't been praised much nationally.  In fact, ESPN's Jayson Stark wrote an article in which he polled people around the industry.  Scherzer's deal was considered the worst free agent signing and most outrageous contract of the offseason.  Of course, Stark's commentary about the responses didn't seem to have anything to do with the quality of player that the Nationals acquired when they signed Scherzer.  They seemed more concerned about the length and structure of the deal.

This isn't really new information, but I'll rehash it.  While the deal is for 7 years and $210 million, half of that money is deferred.  He'll actually be paid $15 million per year for the next fourteen years.  While the industry found that to be ridiculous because of the length of the deal, I somehow doubt that Ted Lerner, 89, is really all that concerned.  The chances of him still owning and operating the Nationals in 2028 at the ripe old age of 103 are pretty slim.

It likely would have made far more sense for the pundits to attack the fact that the Nats were returning all five starters from a team that led the majors in ERA last season.  The Nats are a team that many considered among the favorites to win the World Series prior to signing Scherzer. This was largely due to the strength and depth of their starting rotation.  Their offense was strong last season, as I pointed out last week, but it certainly wasn't as overpowering as their pitching staff was.  The assumption was that most of the resources that they spent this offseason would be to bolster their middle infield for 2015 and beyond.  I would have expected critics of the deal to point out that it seemed unnecessary.  It actually pushes Tanner Roark, who was 11th in the NL in ERA last season, to the bullpen for 2015.

Of course, I would have had problems with that type of criticism as well.  Why?  It's short-sighted.  The Nats signing of Scherzer garnered tens of thousands of words about how it was a move that pushed them all in for 2015.  In reality, the move was more about 2016 and beyond.

Impending free agents moving forward

This shouldn't be news to many around NatsTown, but.......

  • Jordan Zimmermann will be eligible for free agency after this season.  Mike Rizzo has always tried to keep negotiations out of the media, but there has been a lot of conjecture about Zimmermann.  Some of it implies that Zimmermann, who grew up in Wisconsin, would like to pitch closer to home.  Zimmermann has also said in the past year saying that he likes pitching in D.C., but he wouldn't sign a contract where he felt like he was giving the Nats a hometown discount.  It has seemed unlikely for quite some time that the Nats and Zimmermann will get a deal done.
  • Doug Fister is eligible for free agency after this season.  There has been considerably less discussion about Fister than there has about Zimmermann.  Though he's a terrific pitcher, Fister is unlikely to command as much money as Zimmermann will.
  • Stephen Strasburg is eligible for free agency after the 2016 season.  Strasburg has the same agent (Scott Boras) as Scherzer, and Boras has a reputation for making sure that his players hit the free agent market.  This doesn't mean that the Nats won't try to extend Strasburg, but simply that there's no guarantee they'll be able to do so.
  • Gio Gonzalez and Tanner Roark are under club control for quite a bit longer.  Gio has option years that could keep him a Nat through 2018.  Roark has less than two years of service time, which means he'll be under club control through 2019.

The Nats do have quite a few strong starting pitching prospects, including A.J. Cole, Blake Treinen, Joe Ross, Reynaldo Lopez, and (of course!) Lucas Giolito.  Still, the looming free agency of 60% of the rotation within the next two years makes for a lot of uncertainty beyond this season.  If both Fister and Zimmermann leave after this season, the Nats now have Scherzer, Strasburg, Gio, and Roark in 2016... this would still be one of the most imposing rotations in MLB, regardless of who the fifth starter is.  If Strasburg departs after next season, the Nats will still have a terrific front three.

More than anything, the Scherzer signing showed me that the Nats are committed to sustaining their recent success over the long haul rather than go "all in" as the national media has put it.  Those of us who have followed this franchise since before they were the Nats will know exactly what I'm talking about.  Not only did the Expos not have the financial means to sign a player like Scherzer... they rarely had the means to re-sign most of their own players.  As Expos fans, we were lucky (well... given some prospect hauls, maybe not) when good players stuck around until they hit free agency.  More often than not, they were traded because there was no chance the Expos could re-sign them.

Now the Nats are run by owners who are willing to not only try and keep most of their star players around, but also to bring new talent in.  They're run by a terrific GM who is capable of thinking a few moves ahead.  Not only did Rizzo go out and get Scherzer to help this rotation sustain its success.  He also thought ahead by acquiring Trea Turner and Yunel Escobar (both a short term option at second base and a stopgap at shortstop after this season) in case they choose not to meet Ian Desmond's contract demands.

What do these moves mean for Zimmermann? Fister? Desmond?

Now that it's March 9 and we're over the initial panic that Zimmermann (or Strasburg) might be traded, let's think more in terms of after this season.  I've loved Jordan Zimmermann's time in D.C.  The no-hitter in the final game of the 2014 season flooded me with pure joy.  His dominance for 8 2/3 innings a week later in Game 2 against the Giants is an image that will stick with me forever, even if they did go on to lose in 18 innings.  It's been a pleasure watching him become one of the best pitchers in baseball.  I'll savor every opportunity I have to watch him pitch this season.  I'll cheer for him next year regardless of where he's pitching.  I just don't see any way that he's going to be pitching in D.C.  Simply put, the financial commitment made to Scherzer makes me think that there's no way that the Nats are going to sign anyone to a $100+ million contract next season.  If they do, it's certainly not going to be on another starting pitcher.  Scherzer got all of the money (and then some) that the Nats were prepared to spend on Zimm(n).

I'm less sure about Fister.  I love watching Fister pitch every fifth day.  It's a thing of beauty watching him constantly induce weak contact.  He doesn't rack up the kind of strikeout totals that Strasburg, Scherzer, or even Zimmermann do.  While Strasburg and Scherzer have the stuff to just plain dominate, Fister is more of an artist on the mound.  The positive thing is that while he's fantastic, his underlying skills don't tend to get valued as much financially as a guy like Jordan Zimmermann's.  He's also three years older than Zimmermann, which likely keeps both the years and salary down a bit more.  I think he gets a reasonably priced three or four year deal, and I could see the Nats retaining him.

I'm pretty sure the writing is on the wall with Desmond.  He's been another fun player to watch grow in his time with the Nats.  He has outstanding power and speed, which will make him an extremely valuable player on the free agent market next offseason.  As is the case with Zimmermann, I think that the business side of baseball will spell an end to his time with the Nats.  I'm OK with that.

He's not without his flaws (what player isn't?).  He's always been a guy who strikes out a bit too often and doesn't walk frequently enough.  Last season, he seemed a bit more willing to try and work the count, and finished with a career best 7.1% walk rate.  However, he went from striking out a bit too often to striking out with Danny Espinosa type frequency (28.2%).  The power and speed are great.  His ability as a pure hitter isn't necessarily special... not special enough for a player who will likely sign for $125+ million for six or seven seasons (several of which figure to be decline years, as he'll turn 30 in September).

I believe that the Scherzer deal does have some bearing on the Nats intentions with regards to re-signing Desmond.  I think that the acquisitions of Trea Turner (well... the PTBNL) and Yunel Escobar are probably more meaningful in this case, though.  I do think that the Nats will spend big money to extend at least one of their offensive players in the next couple of seasons, but I believe that will be either Bryce Harper and/or Anthony Rendon.  Much like the Scherzer signing implies that they won't choose to retain Jordan Zimmermann, re-signing Ian Desmond would chew up a lot of the money budgeted towards keeping those young(er) stars in house on long term deals.  They're both quite a bit younger than Desmond and haven't necessarily hit their peak yet, so you're not paying $20 million+ for half of the years to be seasons where you would expect the player to start to decline.

OK... Enough about the future.  What does it mean for 2015?

It feels weird to qualify it this way when the Nats added a pitcher who ranks third among starting pitchers in fWAR (12.0) over the past two seasons.  I'll do it anyway, though.  Signing Max Scherzer made the Nats a marginally better team for 2015.  His addition makes what was already the best rotation in baseball even better.  During the season, the Scherzer acquisition will improve upon the Nats pitching depth more than anything else.  The fact that Tanner Roark will move to the bullpen means that the Nats are better equipped to absorb an injury to one of their starting pitchers.  It really strengthens the Nats if (ok... let's be superstitious) the Nats make the playoffs.  There won't be a team in baseball that can match up with a front three of Scherzer, Strasburg, and Zimmermann (in whatever order you want to put them in).

We're going to close this out with a little musical accompaniment.  Welcome to Washington Mad Max!