When a baseball team signs one of the best pitchers in the game to a long-term free agent contract, then it just got significantly better. There’s risk. It might have overpaid. In a few years, today’s jewel could be tomorrow’s fool’s gold. But the day you sign a 30-year-old who just went 16-7, 21-3 and 18-5 the past three years with 231, 240 and 252 strikeouts, you improved your franchise a lot.
In the case of the Washington Nationals, who just signed 2013 American League Cy Young Award winner Max Scherzer to a seven-year deal worth $210 million, the Nats not only added an enormous talent but they also gave themselves an incredible, almost bewildering assortment of variations to remain excellent in the future. In coming weeks, they can choose among 100 Next Moves. Or they can just stand pat and grin.
The Nats just got better for this season because no pitcher on their staff is quite as good or as proven as Scherzer, who may become even more dominant in the no-DH National League. If General Manager Mike Rizzo’s future roster decisions live up to his track record, then the long-term impact of this signing may be more important.
Last month, Rizzo traded for his likely shortstop of the future in Trea Turner, 21. Now that he has even more flexibility — to trade, to sign current players to extensions — what comes next? Does he use his starting pitching surplus to add his closer of the future or his key bat of the future?
For those of us who sometimes wonder whether Nats owner Ted Lerner will spend in line with his market size, his reasonably estimated future revenues and his team’s current sky-high potential, this is a reminder that, when he decides to act, he acts big. Remember, he offered Mark Teixeira more than $180 million for eight years in 2009, when salaries were considerably lower. Teixeira just didn’t take it.
The Scherzer deal, while huge, appears akin to the Teixeira offer in net present value because the $210 million is paid over 14 years. If you assume three percent inflation, that $210 million would be about $172 million in today’s dollars. Scherzer probably will be able to cope.
Lerner, 89, may have even more than Scherzer to be happy about. The MLB All-Star Game almost certainly will come to Nationals Park in 2018. In baseball, one man essentially decides such things: the commissioner. And one man can change his mind. But before Bug Selig retires at the end of this month, people with reason to know tell me Washington will be announced as the 2018 All-Star Game host and that the Nats already have been told. They’re wisely holding their breath and their tongues until it is made public.
Few teams have ever entered an offseason with more short-term certainty but more long-term options for how to build their future. All the Nats needed to make a run at the 2015 World Series was an improvement at second base. However, what they required for their future was an elaborate plan that addressed the reality that Jordan Zimmermann, Ian Desmond, Doug Fister, Denard Span and Tyler Clippard will be free agents after this season while Stephen Strasburg and Drew Storen could leave after 2016.
In theory, the Nats had the pieces to get the puzzle solved, and the money, too, if the Lerner family was willing to spend before getting revenue certainty on its dispute with MASN over regional cable TV money. In practice, with all the moving pieces of a baseball offseason, it would be a 9-foot bear.
Now, with one brave budget-bending signing of Scherzer, the Nats have taken a huge step toward clarifying their long-term needs. They’ve already removed the organization’s worst fear: that they might somehow lose Zimmermann, Desmond and Fister and get nothing large and solid to replace them for ’16 and beyond. Could they have lost all three?
Desmond already has shown no interest in a $107 million contract offer. Zimmermann, despite saying all the right things about wanting to remain a National, often has been viewed as a pitcher who wanted to test the free agent market, and perhaps land closer to his Wisconsin home. The Nats have made no serious offers to Zimmermann or Fister. Perhaps now we know why. Maybe they wanted to keep all that “optionality” open until Scherzer was off the table or on their staff.
Adding Scherzer prevents the possibility, even if remote, of a mass exodus. Now, in 2016, the Nats are assured of having Scherzer, Strasburg, Gio Gonzalez, Tanner Roark and perhaps A.J. Cole or Lucas Giolito, the top minor league prospect in MLB with a 100-mph fastball. All except Strasburg are signed through 2018.
Few franchises have a day when they can look that far into their future and name a plausible rotation while also having a 3-4-5 hitting combination in Bryce Harper, 22, Anthony Rendon, 24, and Ryan Zimmerman, 30, who are under team control through 2018, 2019 and 2020, respectively.
In “Chinatown,” Jack Nicholson’s character asks the richest man in Los Angeles what he can buy that he doesn’t already have. “The future,” he says. Buying Scherzer opens up the future to the Nats. We just don’t know exactly how yet. Because Scherzer is as good, or slightly better than Zimmermann, Strasburg or Fister, the Nats can now line that trio up like three pieces of prize art work at a Sotheby’s auction — but with a high “reserve price,” the minimum beneath which they will not be sold.
Try not to break into laughter and snort coffee through your nose, but the Nats can do nothing at all and decide to send one of the more celebrated rotations in decades to the mound. We could start the discussion immediately on whether any team has ever had a “sixth starter” as good as Roark.
There is no guaranteed Hall of Famer among those six Nats. But the oldest is just 30, and their best-season win totals already are: 21 (Scherzer), 21 (Gonzalez), 19 (Zimmermann), 16 (Fister), 15 (Strasburg) and 15 (Roark) — each within the past three years. Here are their best season strikeout totals respectively: 252, 207, 182, 159, 242 and 138. That’s wonderfully ridiculous.
Reading a list of names is not the same as actually winning games — especially in October. The Nats did not ensure they’d go to a World Series. Right now, they are lopsided with more starting pitchers than they can use at one time, but not enough proven relievers. With Yunel Escobar, acquired for Clippard, now at second base, the Nats have even more right-handed bats at a time when they needed to add left-handed pop with the departure of Adam LaRoche.
They haven’t won anything. This past season, the Dodgers lost the Division Series with Clayton Kershaw beaten in the first and last games. The 2011 Phillies had a Four Aces rotation of Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee, Cole Hamels and Roy Oswalt that had accomplished more than any four on this Nats staff. Those Phils lost in the Division Series because their hitting ran ice cold, just as the Nats’ offense did last October.
All that said, the Nats just got better for this season — a year that was already full of hopes. And if they play their fistful of aces right, they will strengthen their hand for future seasons, too.
For more by Thomas Boswell, see washingtonpost.com/boswell.