The Washington Nationals‘ unexpected deal for free agent pitcher Max Scherzer is worth $210 million over seven years, according to two people with direct knowledge of the negotiations, making it the richest contract ever given a right-hander.
The deal, agreed to late Sunday night, is the second-highest contract issued to a pitcher, trailing only the seven-year, $215 million pact signed by lefty Clayton Kershaw of the Los Angeles Dodgers just more than a year ago. But it trumps the other massive contracts issued to pitchers in recent years, including the six-year, $155-million deal the Chicago Cubs gave lefty Jon Lester earlier this winter, and the seven-year, $180-million contract signed by Justin Verlander, Scherzer’s former teammate in Detroit.
Scherzer, the 2013 American League Cy Young award winner with Detroit, is due in Washington for a physical on Tuesday, with a press conference to announce the deal most likely on Wednesday. Nationals officials almost certainly won’t comment on the most lucrative acquisition in club history – Scherzer’s deal easily trumps the $126 million contract signed by outfielder Jayson Werth prior to the 2011 season – until the press conference.
The year-by-year breakdown of the contract hasn’t yet been divulged, but two people with knowledge of the deal said some money has been deferred, meaning Scherzer’s 2015 salary almost certainly won’t be worth the contract’s average annual value of $30 million. That would accomplish two things: keeping the Nationals’ payroll for the upcoming season at a reasonable-but-competitive number, but also save the higher salaries for future seasons, by which time a dispute with the Baltimore Orioles and the Mid-Atlantic Sports Network over revenues due to the Nationals for their television deal. By the time Scherzer is due the higher salaries, the Nationals would expect to be bringing in millions more per year from MASN.
Update, 1:40 p.m.
Scherzer, who has more strikeouts than any pitcher over the past three seasons, turned down a seven-year, $160-million deal from Detroit last spring, essentially gambling on his own health and performance that he could exceed that in free agency. Because the last six years of that proposal – covering his first six seasons of free agency – were worth $144 million, Scherzer essentially won $66 million in the bet.
For several reasons, the Nationals seemed to be outsiders in the pursuit of Scherzer until Sunday, when the negotiations first became public. Nationals General Manager Mike Rizzo, like many of his colleagues who are charged with building a complete roster, has long been wary of issuing long-term deals for pitchers, whose performance tends to decline as they move into their late 30s.
Before this winter, 14 pitchers had been issued contracts worth at least $100 million. Only three won World Series titles over the course of those deals, and there are even asterisks there. C.C. Sabathia’s title came in the first season of his contract with the New York Yankees, and while
Tim Lincecum Barry Zito and Matt Cain both won championships with the San Francisco Giants in seasons covered by their $100-million deals, Lincecum had pitched his way out of the rotation in 2012 and 2014, and Cain was hurt this past fall and didn’t pitch in the World Series.
But Scherzer’s agent, Scott Boras, had from the start described the decision to sign Scherzer as one for an owner, not a general manager, and Boras appealed directly to Nationals principal owner Theodore N. Lerner. The two met earlier this month, and sources indicated much of the negotiating was between those two men.
Boras has negotiated several deals with Lerner and Rizzo before, and he directly involved the owner in the discussions that landed Werth his deal in December 2010, before the Nationals were even close to being a contender. Lerner was also involved in the machinations that brought closer Rafael Soriano to the club prior to the 2013 season.
With the deal in place, the Nationals are armed with what is almost certainly the best rotation in baseball – and one that could rival the best in the history of the game. Scherzer’s 3.24 ERA over the past three seasons ranks behind only Kershaw and Seattle’s Felix Hernandez, and his arrival brings an impossibly delicious question: Who would the Nationals select as their Opening Day pitcher?
Stephen Strasburg has drawn that assignment in the past, and Washington also selected him to start the first game of the National League Division Series last October against San Francisco. Last season, Strasburg ranked third – behind Scherzer and Texas’s Yu Darvish – in strikeouts per nine innings.
Jordan Zimmermann, the right-hander who closed the season by throwing the first no-hitter in club history, had a 2.66 ERA last season – better than Strasburg or Scherzer. Zimmermann has been the subject of much trade speculation this winter because he has only one more season with the Nationals before he is due to become a free agent, and the two sides haven’t been able to reach a long-term deal that would keep Zimmermann, a homegrown product, in Washington.
Those three would front a rotation that also includes right-hander Doug Fister and lefty Gio Gonzalez, either of whom could serve as an Opening Day starter on another team. And the guy who almost certainly gets bumped from the rotation – should it stay intact – would be Tanner Roark, who went 15-10 with a 2.85 ERA as a rookie in 2014.
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