It is nearly impossible for a team to sign a player to a seven-year, $210-million contract and end up in the same place they were a week earlier. Yet that defines the current position of the 2015 Washington Nationals after signing Max Scherzer.
A week ago, they could have made a massive trade involving one of their homegrown all-stars, but they didn’t have to. This afternoon — tomorrow afternoon, next week, next month – they could make a massive trade involving one of their homegrown all-stars, but they don’t have to.
Scherzer’s arrival in Washington – which will become official at a 2 p.m. news conference Wednesday at Nationals Park – would seem to be the kind of linchpin moment around which a franchise pivots. And yet the Nationals are in a position in which Scherzer provides a roadmap to their future, albeit with several alternate routes to get there.
Instead of forcing their hand, he creates options. Start with what we have reported already: Nationals ownership is not putting pressure on General Manager Mike Rizzo to trade one of his more expensive, incumbent, attractive assets – say, right-hander Jordan Zimmermann or shortstop Ian Desmond – in order to make room for Scherzer’s salary in 2015. Rizzo, though, has spent the entire winter knowing that if a logical baseball deal presents itself for either Zimmermann or Desmond, who each have one year remaining on their contracts, then he must trade them. Not because they’re not productive players, but because he has the care of the franchise – now and five years from now – as his charge.
So before Scherzer arrived, the intent was clear: If you could peddle Zimmermann, and his one remaining season at $16.5 million, for a stud of a prospect – say, Boston shortstop Xander Bogaerts (who is thus far untouchable) – who has five years remaining before free agency, you have to do it. Now, what’s changed? Nothing, other than you have Zimmermann’s replacement a year early.
There has been much discussion, since news of the Nationals’ interest in Scherzer broke Sunday evening, about why wouldn’t Washington offer Zimmermann – one of Rizzo’s own draft picks from his scouting director days, the kind of no-nonsense stalwart who wants the ball in the ninth inning – the money they gave to Scherzer. The answer, at least in part: Zimmermann’s not a free agent. It takes a true outlier – read: Clayton Kershaw – to get a contract that flirts with history before a player has 30 teams bidding on him, not just one.
Now it seems more likely than ever that Zimmermann will depart through free agency following this season. Things can change, of course, and if he’s a World Series hero (note: getting waaaay ahead of ourselves), there may be another dynamic in play. There have been teams that have had two $100-million pitchers on the same roster – last year’s Yankees with CC Sabathia and Masahiro Tanaka, the Giants with Barry Zito and Matt Cain, the Phillies with Cole Hamels and Cliff Lee – but it is the exception, and the 2016 Nationals will still have $100-million position players in Ryan Zimmerman and Jayson Werth as well. And that’s before they even consider whether they can extend Bryce Harper or Stephen Strasburg.
About Strasburg: There have been reports over the past 48 hours that the Nationals would be willing to deal him. That’s true – in the sense that they would be ready to deal any player if the return would put their franchise in a better position. But the relationship isn’t frayed, and a deal seems far-fetched.
But Strasburg is a free agent after the 2016 season, and his agent is Scott Boras (same as Scherzer), and it seems natural that Boras would try to position Strasburg to be the Scherzer of the 2016-17 offseason. So it’s possible, or even probable, that the Nationals enter 2016 with two holes in their rotation if Zimmermann and Doug Fister depart via free agency, and then another hole the following year if Strasburg leaves. Tanner Roark — whose biggest sin after going 15-10 with a 2.85 ERA as a rookie in 2014 was to not be as established as Scherzer or Strasburg or Zimmermann or Fister or Gio Gonzalez – would figure to slide back into one of them.
But it is Scherzer who becomes the bridge to the group of young starting pitchers the Nationals already have: A.J. Cole, 23, who is all but major league ready after going 13-3 with a 3.16 ERA at Class AA and AAA last summer; Lucas Giolito, 20, who might be the best pitching prospect in the game after going 10-2 with a 2.20 ERA and 110 strikeouts in 98 innings in low Class A last year; Reynaldo Lopez, 21, 7-3 with a 1.08 ERA at two levels of Class A in 2014; and 2014 first-round pick Erick Fedde, still recovering from Tommy John surgery, just as Giolito was following his draft year.
Are any or all a guarantee? Absolutely not. Is there potential there? Absolutely.
There is, too, a bridge to the future of the middle infield should Desmond depart. The trade of Tyler Clippard for Yunel Escobar solves the second base issue for 2015, but also provides an experienced (if aging and potentially light-hitting) shortstop in 2016 should the Nationals be unable to reach an agreement with Desmond, who could get $150 million as a free agent. And Escobar would in turn be a bridge to Trea Turner, a first-round pick by San Diego last June who will be the player-to-be-named-later in the three-team trade that sent Steven Souza Jr. to Tampa Bay in December.
Again, Turner’s not a surefire 10-year major league player. But he has a better chance than most, and he helps distill the entire Nationals’ offseason – building to the Scherzer deal – to its essence. It’s about options. The Nationals, perhaps more than any team in the game, are loaded with them.
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