SAN DIEGO — Four years ago this week, at baseball’s 2018 winter meetings in Las Vegas, Bryce Harper was a free agent. The Washington Nationals still had a chance to re-sign him, sort of. Trea Turner and Juan Soto were young and potential extension candidates. Max Scherzer and Stephen Strasburg were anchoring the Nationals’ rotation.
On Monday, as this year’s winter meetings opened in San Diego, Scherzer was a New York Met — and had just added Justin Verlander as a teammate. Soto was a San Diego Padre. Harper was the star of the National League champion Philadelphia Phillies. Strasburg was battling what might be a career-ending injury.
And by Monday afternoon, Turner had agreed to an 11-year contract with the Phillies worth $300 million, according to a person familiar with the deal. Harper and Turner, once the faces of the Nationals’ future, are now under contract to play just a few hours north through at least the 2031 season — leaving fans of a rebuilding franchise with even more frustration than that scenario typically provides.
Adding to the day’s offenses for Washington fans was the news that Verlander, the American League Cy Young Award winner, agreed to a two-year deal with the Mets, according to a person familiar with the situation. The deal reportedly will pay him $86 million over two seasons with a vesting option for a third, meaning Verlander effectively tied Scherzer for the biggest annual haul in MLB history at $43 million.
Verlander is 12th all-time in strikeouts and a slam-dunk Hall of Famer. Scherzer is 13th and will be five behind him as the 2023 season begins. Verlander has led his league in strikeouts five times. Scherzer has led his league three times. Since Scherzer’s first full major league season in 2009, Scherzer and Verlander are first and second in the majors in strikeouts and first and third in innings.
The deal eases the blow the Mets suffered Friday when Jacob deGrom headed to the Texas Rangers on a five-year deal. As with deGrom, durability will be a question for Verlander, who threw 175 innings last season and 20 more in the postseason in his first year back from Tommy John surgery. He will be 40 on Opening Day — a year and five months older than Scherzer, who has battled injuries late in the season each of the past two years.
The Mets will need them both to reach October, a road that is particularly difficult in the National League East — even though a new, balanced regular season schedule pits division rivals against one another less often. While the Mets are set to have more than $300 million committed to their 2023 roster, the rest of the division — at least the Atlanta and Philadelphia chapters — is not sitting still.
The Phillies finished third in the NL East before charging through October. Now they add Turner, who will turn 30 in June and has grown into one of the major leagues’ best all-around players. He is a potent stolen base threat and has a .301 batting average since the start of the 2018 season. Only one shortstop, Francisco Lindor, has accumulated more FanGraphs wins above replacement over that span.
The 10-year, $341 million extension Lindor signed with the Mets before the 2021 season pushed the Nationals to include Turner in the trade that sent Scherzer to the Los Angeles Dodgers at that year’s deadline. Once Lindor, who was 27 at the time, signed that deal, extension talks between Turner’s camp and the Nationals sputtered. The Nationals worried they would be priced out of the kind of deal Turner would command.
So they sent him to the Dodgers, where he became known for his smooth slides and steady production. He entered free agency this year as one of a few elite shortstops on the market, joining Carlos Correa, Xander Bogaerts and Dansby Swanson. The Phillies were the first to pounce, committing to another major deal for another superstar — a staple of the formula that has helped team president Dave Dombrowski lead four different teams to the World Series, including the Phillies’ surprise showing in 2022.
Turner will find many familiar faces in Philadelphia beyond Harper. Another former Nationals teammate, Kyle Schwarber, will be there. His former Nationals hitting coach, Kevin Long — who has a reputation in the industry as a potent recruiter of stars — now handles that job there. He will give a clunky, power-heavy lineup a nimbler offensive weapon — a scary thought after that clunky, power-heavy lineup was good enough to lift the Phillies to the World Series.
Turner should help Philadelphia cover for the impending absence of Harper, who underwent Tommy John surgery and is not expected to return to the lineup until midseason. He might also help dislodge what had been a logjammed shortstop market as teams seeking a stalwart at that position — a list that could include the Chicago Cubs, the St. Louis Cardinals, the Dodgers, the Atlanta Braves, the Minnesota Twins and others — now have just three top-tier options left to bid on.
Correa is generally considered the best one available. Bogaerts, who like Correa is represented by Scott Boras, is also an uncommonly productive offensive middle infielder. Swanson had a career year just in time to hit free agency but is generally prized as much for his defense as for his bat.
The market for top-line starting pitching shrank Monday, too. With deGrom and Verlander off the board, the top starting pitcher available is Carlos Rodón, a hard-throwing lefty who will be 30 on Opening Day. The price of pitching has been high from the top of the market to the bottom, meaning teams that need pitching and haven’t gotten some yet, such as the Dodgers and the New York Yankees, may find themselves in substantial bidding wars for the next tier of starters — a group that includes Jameson Taillon and Chris Bassitt.
But the Phillies seem to have secured their offseason prize in Turner, who enjoyed his time in Washington and always said he wished he could stay long term. The Phillies will pay Turner $27.3 million annually — about $8 million less than what the Nationals are slated to pay Strasburg in 2023.