When the weekend began, the Washington Nationals could have argued that they boasted the best group of starting pitchers in baseball. Stephen Strasburg is an electrifying No. 1 draft pick; Jordan Zimmermann a Clydesdale-type who closed last regular season by throwing a no-hitter; Gio Gonzalez a smiling lefty who once won 21 games; Doug Fister a groundball-inducing machine and Tanner Roark an unheralded prospect who impressively won 15 games as a rookie.
But by the time Monday morning dawned, the Nationals had improved that sterling bunch in a way that changed the landscapes of both baseball and the Washington sports scene, agreeing to a seven-year, $210 million contract with free agent pitcher Max Scherzer, according to two sources with direct knowledge of the negotiations.
Scherzer thus becomes the newest star in Washington, where expectations are propped up in offseason after offseason, only to be followed by disappointment in often painful fashion for more than two decades. The city’s last major championship came when the Redskins won the Super Bowl following the 1991 football season, and there have been countless debacles since — spread across all sports — culminating in a particularly chaotic and disheartening 4-12 season for the Redskins that concluded last month.
Now, though, the rest of the District’s sports scene may be positioned to pivot. Scherzer, who is scheduled to take a physical exam Tuesday and be introduced at a Wednesday news conference, joins a Nationals franchise that is coming off its second division title in three seasons. And he becomes yet another nationally identifiable face here, joining not only teammates Strasburg and outfielder Bryce Harper, but John Wall of basketball’s Wizards, who seem certain to reach the NBA’s playoffs again this spring, and Alex Ovechkin of the Capitals, who was just selected to his sixth NHL All-Star Game and has his team pointed toward hockey’s postseason again.
None of those stars, though, commanded Scherzer’s contract, which represents a number of milestones in baseball and also carries with it enormous risk, because such deals have failed far more often than they have succeeded. Scherzer will earn more than any right-hander in history, and he trails only Los Angeles Dodgers lefty Clayton Kershaw, who signed a $215 million deal last winter, in total compensation for a pitcher. It’s also the most money ever issued to one player by the Nationals, easily trumping the $126 million deal signed by outfielder Jayson Werth before the 2011 season, when the Nationals were afterthoughts rather than a potential powerhouse.
Those, though, are the almost unimaginable sums of money that mark each offseason now, because Major League Baseball has become a $9 billion industry flush with cash. From a baseball sense, Scherzer’s arrival cements the Nationals as one of the front-and-center franchises in the sport and will almost certainly make them prohibitive favorites to win the 2015 World Series. Predictions for such championships are inherently fickle; few had the San Francisco Giants winning again last October. But with pitchers and catchers due to report to spring training one month from Monday, the current roster appears unmatched in the sport.
Still, one reason Scherzer seemed unlikely to land in Washington until Sunday was because Nationals General Manager Mike Rizzo — who, when he served as the scouting director of the Arizona Diamondbacks, selected Scherzer in the first round of the 2006 draft — is reluctant to dole out lengthy contracts for pitchers. He joins many of his GM brethren in taking that stance, because the history of such deals for pitchers is murky at best.
Of the 14 nine-figure contracts that were granted to pitchers before this winter, many ended with broken-down players unable to pitch up to their massive salaries. Only three such pitchers have won World Series titles while playing under such a contract: CC Sabathia, who did so in the first year of his contract with the New York Yankees but made only eight starts last year and now has chronic knee problems; San Francisco’s Barry Zito, who had been bumped from the starting rotation because of poor performance in 2010 and went 63-80 over the course of his deal; and Zito’s teammate Matt Cain, who won under such a deal in 2010 and 2012 but was hurt and unable to pitch when the Giants took the championship last October.
Scherzer, 30, became just the fourth pitcher that age or older to sign a deal worth at least $100 million. The winner of the Cy Young award as the American League’s best pitcher in 2013 is coming off a dominant run with the Detroit Tigers. Over the past three seasons, no pitcher in baseball recorded more strikeouts. Scherzer went 55-15 with a 3.24 earned run average in that span.
Scherzer’s agent, Scott Boras, is among the most powerful and influential characters in the sport, and he had long described the pursuit of the offseason’s most expensive free agent as a decision for ownership. To that end, Boras met with Ted Lerner privately earlier this month, and according to officials with knowledge of the talks, negotiations started at the highest level.
Though another, unnamed team remained in the mix Sunday night, according to multiple people with knowledge of the negotiations, the Nationals were “aggressive” by that point, and the parameters of a deal came into focus. Though the average annual value of the contract is $30 million, it is structured creatively. According to an official with direct knowledge of the negotiations, it includes a $50 million signing bonus that is spread out over several years, and the end result is Scherzer will receive $15 million annually for the next 14 years — including seven years after the pact ends.
Scherzer could fit into the team’s current financial structure, meaning the Nationals don’t necessarily have to trade Zimmermann (due $16.5 million this season) or star shortstop Ian Desmond, also an impending free agent who will make $11 million in 2015. Before Scherzer’s deal was complete, the Nationals owed about $130 million in payroll for the upcoming season. The structure of his deal means they will only pay out $145 million — not a huge leap from their opening day payroll of roughly $134 million a year ago.
In a year, they could lose Zimmermann, Desmond, Fister and center fielder Denard Span to free agency. But their farm system is stocked with perhaps the best group of starting pitching prospects in the game. “They’ve been able to play it both ways,” said an official from another club.
For right now, though, they are now loaded. This one move that put Washington at the center of the sport guarantees nothing but anticipation and what’s sure to be a hotly contested debate: Which one of these star pitchers will get the ball on April 6, when the Nationals open the season boasting an accomplished rotation that just got better.