In four full years with the Nationals, Scherzer has won two Cy Young Awards, thrown a pair of no-hitters, tied the MLB record for most strikeouts (20) in a nine-inning game and struck out 300 batters in a season, which he accomplished last year.
Then came Wednesday night, when Scherzer added to his legend by tossing seven shutout innings against the Phillies a day after breaking his nose by fouling a bunt attempt off his face in batting practice.
It’s fun sports-talk radio fodder to debate Scherzer’s place among the greatest free agent signings in D.C. sports history. In fact, Scherzer’s eight-inning gem against the Reds on June 2 was the inspiration for a segment on that very topic on 106.7 The Fan’s “Grant and Danny” show earlier this month.
After Scherzer shut down the Phillies on Wednesday while sporting a shiner that made him look like a boxer, Washington Post contributor Kevin Blackistone said it’s time to stop the fight.
“The G.O.A.T. free agent signee in Washington pro team sports history,” Blackistone tweeted of Mad Max. “Period. -30- Full stop.”
Despite Scherzer’s lack of a championship, let alone a playoff series win with Washington, I’m inclined to agree, with John Riggins, a legend on and off the field, a close second. Here’s a look at the main competition for that title across various sports. (Only players signed as free agents after Major League Baseball eliminated the reserve clause in 1975 were considered.)
“The Redskins found the big fullback they so desperately needed yesterday,” The Post’s John Schulian wrote in June 1976. “His name is John Riggins, and presumably he was located in the shadow of a titanic contract demand.”
The 26-year-old Riggins, who was coming off a 1,000-yard season with the Jets, signed a five-year deal with Washington worth a reported $1.5 million. Riggins wasn’t long for New York after management balked at his request to be paid the same salary ($450,000) as Super Bowl-winning QB Joe Namath toward the end of 1975.
“The demand I put on the Jets,” Riggins said at his introductory news conference, “was just my way of saying, ‘It’s been nice.’”
Riggins’s nine years in Washington were sometimes bumpy — he sat out the 1980 season over a contract dispute — but they were overall quite nice. The Diesel rushed for more than 1,000 yards in four seasons, scored 85 touchdowns and was the MVP of the Redskins’ first Super Bowl win in January, 1983.
Arenas’s Wizards tenure ended in miserable and embarrassing fashion, but before his knee injury and his decision to bring a gun into the locker room, he was worth every penny of the six-year, $64 million deal he signed in July 2003.
Injuries limited Arenas to 55 games in his first season with the Wizards, but he averaged 25.5 points in 2004-05 and helped lead Washington to its first of four consecutive playoffs berths after a seven-year postseason drought. In early 2007, Arenas, whose “swag was phenomenal” and also went by Hibachi and Agent Zero, was arguably the hottest name in all of sports. Arenas tore his MCL toward the end of that season and was never the same player.
Washington landing Arenas was pure, dumb luck. After spending the first two seasons of his career with Golden State, Arenas narrowed his potential free agent suitors to the Clippers and Wizards, and decided to flip a quarter 10 times to make his choice. Heads and Arenas would go to Los Angeles; tails and he would be D.C.-bound. Heads came up eight times, and yet ...
“I always go against the odds,” Arenas said. “When the Clippers came up eight times, I was like, I don’t go with the grain. I go against the wave. I go upstream.”
Though technically a transfer, D.C. United’s signing of Rooney last summer looks more brilliant by the day. At 32, some figured Rooney, the career scoring leader for Manchester United and the English national team, was washed up, and that the move was little more than an expensive way for D.C. United to drum up excitement about the team and boost attendance as it prepared to open Audi Field.
Rooney helped turn around United’s fortunes, lifting it from the bottom of the MLS table to an improbable playoff berth, with 12 goals in 21 games. The team is off to a much better start this season, and Rooney is once again a main reason. He’s tied for fourth in the league with eight goals through 16 games.
Recency bias? Perhaps, but the pickings are slim. Niskanen, who was traded to the Flyers for Radko Gudas in a cost-cutting move last week, arrived in Washington with a seven-year, $40.25 million deal in July, 2014.
After spending the first eight seasons of his career with the Dallas Stars and Pittsburgh Penguins, the defenseman averaged 78 games played during the regular season in five years with the Capitals. He was instrumental in Washington winning its first Stanley Cup title in 2018.
Niskanen’s name on the Cup gives him a slight edge over another former Penguin, center Robert Lang, who was productive during his two seasons in Washington from 2002-04.
As recently as last season, another National was being mentioned among the greatest free agent signings in Washington sports history. Ben Zobrist’s decision to sign with the Cubs and Brandon Phillips’s unwillingness to waive his no-trade rights with the Reds led the Nationals to acquire the 31-year-old Murphy for three years and $37.5 million in December, 2015.
After hitting seven home runs in the Mets’ first nine playoff games en route to a World Series appearance in 2015, Murphy continued to flash his newfound power in Washington. He hit .347 with 25 home runs in 2016, eclipsing his previous career-high by 11 home runs. He absolutely tortured Mets pitching. Murphy hit .322 with another 23 home runs the following year and was an all-star selection for the second consecutive season.
Murphy missed the first two months of last season while recovering from knee surgery before the Nationals traded him to the Cubs in August.
Honorable mentions: Wilber Marshall (Redskins), London Fletcher (Redskins), Lang (Capitals), Bob Dandridge (Bullets), Bernard King (Bullets), Jayson Werth (Nationals).
Is someone missing from this list? Loosen up, and mention that player in the comments.