Thursday, January 29, 2015

Is Scherzer the Nats Missing Piece?

The Washington Nationals have finished with the National League's best record two out of the last three seasons. This is a very talented team that already featured one of the game's best pitching staffs, and some young up and coming position players. Despite all the talent in D.C., the Nats lost in the Division Series in 2012 and 2014. They have been unable to replicate their regular season success in the postseason, losing to the Cardinals and Giants in the postseason.

Last week, the Nationals were the mystery team that swooped in and signed Max Scherzer. Rumors of him going to the Red Sox, Dodgers, Yankees, Cubs, or even Cardinals were unfounded. Scherzer had turned down a $140 million contract from the Tigers last year, and his asking price scared many teams away. His agent Scott Boras had also limited his market. However, Boras always seems to get his client the big contract. These sort of contracts are decided at the ownership level, and 89 year old owner Ted Lerner isn't concerned about the long term future. He's hoping for a championship today.

Scherzer signed a record 7 year, $210 million contract for a right handed pitcher. It is actually a 14 year contract, with half the money deferred. The Nationals already feature a rotation with All Star Jordan Zimmermann, phenom Stephen Strasburg, and lefty Gio Gonzalez. Doug Fister and Tanner Roark also had very good seasons last year. That gives the Nats six solid starters. The signing of Scherzer makes it very unlikely the team will re-sign pending free agent Zimmermann after the season. Zimmermann had turned down an extension. It also could hurt efforts to re-sign shortstop Ian Desmond after the season.

This move reminds me of when the Braves signed Greg Maddux to a rotation that already included Tom Glavine and John Smoltz. Or when the Red Sox traded for Curt Schilling after they fell short of the World Series in 2003. The addition of Scherzer certainly won't hurt in the short term. But what about the long term? Will Scherzer be an ace type pitcher 4 or 5 years into the contract? Will the Scherzer deal keep the team from being able to keep players such as Strasburg, Desmond, Bryce Harper, or Anthony Rendon long term? Especially, when the team also has a lot of money tied up in Ryan Zimmerman and Jayson Werth, along with Scherzer.

For the next few seasons, I would expect Scherzer to pitch at an All Star level. Moving to the NL should help him out since he won't have to face the DH. The last two seasons, Scherzer was dominant in Detroit. He won the Cy Young Award in 2013, and won 18 games last season. He has became a better pitcher than when he was younger and tried to strike everybody out. He now pitches deeper into games, and gives up less runs. Scherzer hasn't won the World Series, but has pitched in the postseason the past four seasons. He has a 4-3 record, 3.73 ERA, and 80 strikeouts in 62.2 innings.

That been said, there has been many long term pitching contracts that have gone bad. One can think of the past contracts of Kevin Brown, Mike Hampton, Denny Neagle, Barry Zito, and Carl Pavano as examples of disasters. Other pitchers such as CC Sabathia, Johan Santana, and Cliff Lee pitched well during the first half of their contracts, only to suffer injuries during the last part.

The Nats are almost certain to win the NL East division crown again this season. The Phillies are rebuilding an aging roster, the Mets have offensive holes, and the Braves are also looking towards the future. Only the Marlins figure to be in the running, and they are clearly a cut below the Nats. The addition of Scherzer is not meant to win the division, it was meant to make noise in October. The way this contract will be viewed 10 years from now depends a lot on if the Nats win a World Series during that span.

Washington returns most of the team that won 96 games last year. Only Adam LaRoche, Rafael Soriano, Asdrubal Cabrera, and Tyler Clippard won't return from last year's roster. Long time third baseman Ryan Zimmerman will replace LaRoche at first base after an injury plagued season. This will keep third base open for Rendon, who opened some eyes with his play last year. Soriano lost his closer job late last year to Drew Storen, and is currently unsigned. Clippard was traded for Yunel Escobar, who will take over second base. The team also will utilize Danny Espinosa in the middle infield. To shore up the bullpen depth, the team recently signed former Toronto closer Casey Janssen. This team has a lot of depth and talent, and will look to shed their reputation as a postseason choker this year.

                                     RIP Ernie Banks

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