Three years ago Thursday, as the Seattle Seahawks edged the Green Bay Packers in the NFC championship game and Tom Brady and the New England Patriots blew out the Indianapolis Colts for the AFC title, word began to trickle out from the baseball world. One of those so-called “mystery teams” — poorly named, given they are not often mysteries to those negotiating with them — were hurtling to the front of the race for 2013 Cy Young Award winner Max Scherzer.
At the time, no one thought the Washington Nationals would pursue him. Why would they, with a rotation that already included Stephen Strasburg and Jordan Zimmermann? When they did, the Nationals charged, not tiptoed, into uncharted and uncomfortable territory. General Manager Mike Rizzo had always been wary of megadeals for starters. Suddenly, the Nationals were handing out the biggest contract in team history to a player no one thought they really needed, not with a rotation like theirs.
The average annual value of Scherzer’s contract is just less than $29 million. As of Thursday morning, Cot’s Baseball Contracts database includes only three pitchers who ever signed contracts that paid them so well — Zack Greinke (just under $35 million), David Price ($31 million) and Clayton Kershaw (just less than $31 million). In the first three seasons of his deal (2014-16), Kershaw accumulated 22.7 Wins Above Replacement, according to FanGraphs. In the first two seasons of his deal (2016-17), Price accumulated 5.5 WAR (less than Gio Gonzalez in that time) and is on pace for around 6.75 in the first three seasons of that Red Sox contract — though injuries have somewhat limited him. In the first two seasons of his deal (2016-17), Greinke earned 7.3 WAR and is on pace for around 11 WAR in the first few seasons of his deal. Scherzer has compiled 18 WAR.
Wins Above Replacement isn’t a perfect stat for assessing pitcher performance, but the more helpful statistics speak to the success of Scherzer’s deal, too. Scherzer has won two Cy Young Awards in three seasons, including two straight. He didn’t miss a start until this season. No one has thrown more innings, accumulated more strikeouts or allowed a lower batting average against than he has in that time.
If there is a knock (and what is analysis without at least one knock?), it is that Scherzer has not won a playoff game. The man signed to push the Nationals over the edge has been unable to do so, left wide-eyed and devastated after Game 5 losses in consecutive seasons. But as Zimmermann and Doug Fister departed and Stephen Strasburg battled injury, Scherzer has been a stalwart — a much-needed ace, not the luxury some thought he was when the Nationals first signed him.
Without Scherzer, the Nationals would have lacked an ace in the 2016 playoffs when Strasburg was injured. Without Scherzer, they wouldn’t be able to match up with the super rotations that have followed their 2015 lead. And without Scherzer, they would lack a key (if sometimes boisterous) clubhouse presence whose already substantial role will grow with the departure of veteran Jayson Werth to free agency. In other words, while the Nationals didn’t seem to need Scherzer at the time they signed him, he has been indispensable since.
Loath as he would be to admit it, quick as he would be to deny it, Scherzer showed some of the first signs of a near-inevitable decline during the 2017 season. With strange knuckle and neck injuries, and a dose of the more common hamstring and calf types, Scherzer missed time and required more rest than he might have liked. Then again, his stuff stayed steady when he was healthy. He also won the Cy Young Award. If that is any indication of what is to come as the 33-year-old enters his mid-30s, the Nationals won’t mind that decline one bit.
Scherzer is an expert when it comes to his body, a legendarily hard worker who runs younger pitchers into the ground when they try to keep up. He is so in tune with his mechanics that he can feel the slightest change, knows when to compensate and when to hold back, and has shown himself capable of knowing what to pitch through and what requires rest. He is also a notorious tinkerer, the kind of veteran who could report to West Palm Beach with a knuckleball and surprise no one. He is always adding to his arsenal, just in case, something that should help him if his velocity sinks in the years to come.
But no one eludes time’s effects completely, and as Scherzer tries to stave them off, the Nationals will have decisions to make. After the 2019 season, Scherzer’s 10-and-five rights will kick in — those trade-veto privileges awarded to veterans who have logged 10 years in the league, the past five with a single team. At that point, his nearly un-tradeable contract will be legitimately un-tradeable without Scherzer’s consent. In this moment, the idea of even considering a trade of the twice-reigning Cy Young winner seems laughable. Even two seasons from now, the same will likely be true. Still, given the uncertainty of Rizzo’s status and the organizational uncertainty that comes with it, Scherzer’s late-30s future is worth mentioning now, as it will likely become a topic of more vehement discussion later.
Whatever that future, the Nationals could already write Scherzer’s deal off as a success. For the first three seasons of a seven-year deal that effectively paid Scherzer as if he were the best right-handed starter in the National League, he has been exactly that. None of the injuries he battled last year foretells a drastic decline in 2018, either. That decline feels inevitable, but if Scherzer turns in one more Scherzer-esque season, he will have been an elite pitcher for more than half of that megadeal, which is probably more than the Nationals could have bet on three years ago. Whatever happens during the next four years, the past three have been magical for Scherzer and the Nationals, whose unexpected relationship began three years ago today.
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