And now — somehow — that contract is 10 months from being up. Seven years don’t quite last forever, even if $210 million might.
On Tuesday, both General Manager Mike Rizzo and Scherzer’s agent, Scott Boras, were asked about an extension for the 36-year-old ace. Rizzo was a bit coy, saying he has not talked to Scherzer about his future while acknowledging discussions could be on the “ownership level.” Then Boras affirmed that, saying he plans to soon sit down with Ted Lerner, the team’s founding principal owner.
“You know, normally what we do is we kind of, in that setting, we kind of wait for the ownership to talk with us about it,” Boras said Tuesday in a video call with reporters. “Mr. Lerner and I have had a few conversations, and we’re going to get together, you know, after the new year, and have some discussions. So we’ll see how that goes.”
There are a few dynamics at play here. First, it’s hard to imagine Rizzo deferring to ownership with any other player. But Boras has a long-standing relationship with Ted Lerner. And Scherzer, to his credit, is a veteran union leader who could steer his own negotiations.
Ted Lerner, 95, ceded principal ownership to his son, Mark, in 2018. He is far less involved in day-to-day operations than he used to be. Yet when it comes to Boras, Lerner will always pick up the phone. They have met for annual meetings at Lerner’s home in Palm Springs, Calif., and have been known to break off while discussing a contract. They sat together for a 2019 game before Anthony Rendon, another Boras client, became a free agent. When Bryce Harper was on the market the previous winter, Lerner and his wife, Annette, hosted Boras, Harper and Harper’s wife, Kayla, for a meeting just before Christmas.
The point is, if a Scherzer extension is in the cards, there are a lot of ways it could formulate. Rizzo and Scherzer go back to when Rizzo drafted him with the Arizona Diamondbacks in 2006. Rizzo was drawn to a delivery that many scouts found violent and injury-prone. Once the sport restarts — whether that’s in February, as scheduled, or later — Rizzo and Scherzer will often chat on the field at the Nationals’ spring training complex in West Palm Beach, Fla. That will continue into the season.
Could an extension come up in casual conversation? Absolutely.
“To my knowledge, it hasn’t happened yet,” Rizzo said Tuesday when asked about extension talks. “When we get to spring training, when we get to see each other each and every day, that sometimes changes. We will keep all our options open. Max is a Hall of Fame pitcher that’s earned that respect.”
The initial contract questions are how many years and how much money. Directly related, though, is how much Scherzer has left.
His 2019 season was filled with a number of back, shoulder and neck injuries. His 2020 was bumpy and perhaps a throwaway, given the coronavirus shutdown and the challenges for pitchers after the restart. His velocity was normal, and there were no significant changes to his pitch usage. He finished with a 3.74 ERA in 67⅓ innings. He had trouble finishing outings, which is typically when he’s at his best. He didn’t crack the top five of Cy Young voting for the first time since 2012. He actually didn’t crack the top 10.
This creates a puzzle common with aging pitchers: Is Scherzer about to bounce back to his normal, dominant self? Or is the latest version closer to normal than he or the Nationals would like?
“I think his stuff is as good as it’s ever been,” Rizzo said Tuesday. “It’s different than it was when we first signed him. It’s way different than when I drafted him in 2006. He’s a guy that is a chameleon. He changes as his career moves on. He’s always coming up with a way to beat you.”
“The bar is so high with Max that anything but excellence is regarded as a failure,” Rizzo continued. “He grinded through a season last year. He was a leader on that team. As far as last year, I think he led more than he ever has. He was the voice of the team with the covid protocols and other things. I think he ages very, very well. His delivery works for him. He is such a workaholic type of preparer that I see him being successful for years to come.”
So the GM is on the record with his prediction. Still, Scherzer’s 2021 should provide the most clarity. With Scherzer’s, Stephen Strasburg’s and Patrick Corbin’s average annual values, the Nationals are on the hook for $88 million next year. And while deferrals and backloaded contracts mean some of that will be paid later, the takeaway doesn’t change.
The Nationals are built around their rotation. They won a World Series that way, and they believe, as Rizzo and Manager Dave Martinez expressed Tuesday, that Scherzer, Strasburg and Corbin again will vault them into the mix next season. Meanwhile, until the end of October 2021, they are the only team that can negotiate with Scherzer. They will choose whether to keep the core intact and spend to do so or send off a Hall of Fame arm who brought a title to Washington.
There’s no way in which that decision is easy. It will echo for years.