Getty ImagesMax Scherzer will join an already-formidable rotation anchored by Jordan Zimmermann.
The Washington Nationals
have agreed to a seven-year contract with Max Scherzer
for a reported $210 million, half of it deferred -- Scherzer reportedly will receive $15 million annually for 14 years -- the most ever
spent on a free-agent pitcher, the most ever paid out to a right-handed pitcher and the second-most dollars doled out for any pitcher, with the deal slotting in behind Clayton Kershaw
and ahead of Felix Hernandez
With that kind of payout, the Nationals can reasonably expect a marked upgrade in 2015, yes?
Well … not really.
Scherzer is an outstanding pitcher who has 492 strikeouts in his past 434 2/3 innings, and perhaps he'll be the guy who pushes the Nationals to a place they haven't gone before, the World Series.
But if Washington had maintained the status quo with its rotation -- arguably the best in the majors as it was -- the Nationals probably would've had an excellent chance to get to the postseason again. Here is the WAR (wins above replacement) for each member of the Nats' rotation in 2014: Jordan Zimmermann
That's a tremendous group, reflected in their cumulative 20.3 WAR, and there really is no reason to think that quintet wouldn't do something close to that in 2015, or maybe even better. Fister, who turns 31 in a couple of weeks, is the oldest of the group, and seems to be getting better and better. Gonzalez is 29, Roark is 28, Zimmermann is 28 and Strasburg is 26.
But the Nationals appear poised to break up the band. In a sense, they are adding a new lead singer in the 30-year-old Scherzer, who posted a 6.0 WAR last year, racking up 220 1/3 innings the year after he won the AL Cy Young Award.
As Jayson Stark reported, the Nationals had no intention of trading a starting pitcher and signing Scherzer until they knew they could offset Scherzer's incoming salary with other moves, and after unloading expensive setup man Tyler Clippard
the other day, Washington is poised to move at least a starting pitcher and maybe more.
They have talked with other teams about shortstop Ian Desmond
, and they built in a shortstop safety net with the acquisition of Yunel Escobar
. But as of Monday morning, the Nationals' plan is to keep Desmond unless they get overwhelmed. As Barry Svrluga writes
, Washington theoretically could keep everything intact for 2015, although that would be counter to what they conveyed to other clubs during the first months of the offseason, when their baseball operations folks talked about a lack of financial flexibility.
Rival officials have thought for months that Zimmermann was the primary candidate to be traded this winter because of his looming free agency and the lack of progress in Washington's negotiations with the right-hander. If it turns out he's the guy on the move and Scherzer effectively takes his spot in the rotation, then what the Nationals could get in return for a record-setting contract is an upgrade of just 1 WAR.
What Washington seems to be paying for is certainty, assuredness that after the 2015 season, they will have at least one elite starting pitcher under contract for the foreseeable future after Zimmermann and Fister reach free agency.
What a lot of executives will tell you privately is that when they invest a whopper contract of at least seven years in a player who has reached the prime of his career, as Scherzer has, what they hope for is a couple of years of difference-making production, the best of his best. Then they hope for a decline that is merely gradual, knowing that the last one or two years of the deal, the performance could get ugly. The model of this could be the Yankees' initial seven-year, $161 million investment in CC Sabathia
, signed after the 2008 season. He helped them win a World Series in 2009, then continued to be a really good pitcher for a few more years before regression set in. (The Yankees' mistake was giving him a one-year extension, as Sabathia threatened to exercise the buyout in his contract.)
Because the Washington rotation is already really good, the Nationals might not benefit from that big bump of overall production from their major investment in the first year of the deal, while still assuming the enormous risk that is inherent in a long-term contract with a starting pitcher.
You can reasonably argue that the Nationals could've played this more conservatively and still been in better position for 2015 and beyond. If Washington had kept its team intact -- with Clippard, Zimmermann, Desmond, Fister or whomever winds up being moved to account for the Scherzer contract -- the Nationals would still be a strong favorite to land in the postseason and advance to the next level. And next fall they would be in position to dive into a free-agent market that should be flush with options: Zimmermann, Fister, David Price
, maybe Zack Greinke
, others. If you're willing to spend $180 million -- and apparently they are, given the impending signing of Scherzer -- you're going to get somebody good.
A week ago, they were the best team on paper in Major League Baseball, with a superlative rotation, a strong and deep everyday lineup and a good bullpen, and with Scherzer, they still are.
But the trade of Clippard created a major hole in the relief corps, any trade of Desmond would downgrade the infield, and now the Nationals have taken on the sort of humongous contract that almost never pays off: a long-term deal for a pitcher at least 30 years old. Some rival executives strongly believe that financial flexibility is something to be coveted and fostered, and Washington, with the biggest stack of chips at the table, was in perfect position to do that.
Instead, they've made an aggressive play for the best and most expensive free agent available, and if they reach the World Series next fall or win it and Scherzer has a moment to laughingly dump a bottle of champagne over the head of general manager Mike Rizzo, they can laugh at all the what-might-have-beens.
Today just happens to be the last in our series of rankings, and we're stacking up the best teams
: No. 1. Washington Nationals
No matter who stays and who goes, the Nationals should go into the 2015 season as the on-paper favorites to win the World Series because of the depth of their roster. Yes, Rizzo still has some work to do, especially in the bullpen. Francisco Rodriguez
, the veteran reliever, would seem to be an excellent fit with this group, and like Scherzer, Jayson Werth
, Strasburg, Anthony Rendon
, Bryce Harper
and others in the organization, he is a client of agent Scott Boras, who has made some of his best deals with Washington's ownership. Last summer, the Angels' Jerry Dipoto was the latest general manager to demonstrate that you can build a bullpen on the fly, and that seems to be Rizzo's challenge in the months ahead, although there is some confidence within the organization that Aaron Barrett
has the stuff to step into a more prominent role. 2. Los Angeles Dodgers
Not only do the Dodgers have a strong rotation again, as well as greatly improved defense, roster functionality and -- they believe -- clubhouse culture; they also have the ability and the willingness to fix problems during the season, with their stacks of money and solid farm system. There might well be blips along the way, with the reconstruction of their bullpen around Kenley Jansen
, with the development of new center fielder Joc Pederson
, with the health of their rotation. But L.A. is in far better position than any of its division rivals to add during the summer, and this year, Andrew Friedman will have a real shot at being able to make in-season upgrades. 3. St. Louis Cardinals
The NL Central continues to get better and more competitive, as the Cubs begin to make their move toward legitimacy, at the same time cracks have appeared in the St. Louis rotation. The Cardinals don't have the perceived depth in their farm system as they did a year or two ago, in the eyes of rival evaluators. But they have a ton of talent in the big leagues and a bedrock culture of success: The Cardinals have made the postseason in 11 of the past 15 seasons and given their roster of Adam Wainwright
, Yadier Molina
, Matt Holliday
, Matt Carpenter
and others, it'd be crazy to dismiss them. 4. Kansas City Royals
The defending AL champions have taken steps to hold their ground. James Shields
and Billy Butler
walked way, but the Royals added mid-level investments inEdinson Volquez
, Kendrys Morales
and Alex Rios
to a strong core of defenders and relievers. They didn't really scare anyone throughout 2014 and they won't scare anyone now, because they aren't a great offensive team and their rotation is good and not great. The Royals aren't going to run away from what should be an incredibly competitive field in the AL Central. But the key pieces of this club -- Alex Gordon
, Yordano Ventura
, the three dominant relievers -- are all in their prime. 5. Pittsburgh Pirates
Year by year, the Pirates are approaching the Cardinals' model for sturdiness, with a farm system that is steadily productive and a major league team that is effectively operated. Pittsburgh will be trying to make the postseason for the third consecutive year, and if Gerrit Cole
stays healthy, they can do it. 6. Los Angeles Angels Garrett Richards
is expected to return sometime early in the season as he recovers from a major knee injury, and Matt Shoemaker
, one of the big surprises of 2014, will be in the rotation from the outset of the season. If their starting rotation is good again, as it was last season when it finished 13th in ERA
, the Angels could again win the West. 7. Seattle Mariners
The additions of Nelson Cruz
, Seth Smith
and Justin Ruggiano
will make the lineup better, and Seattle should have a good bullpen and a good rotation. But they are a top-heavy team, in a sense; their best players have to be great, especially their rotation. 8. Detroit Tigers
Now that Scherzer is gone for good, much will depend on how much they get out of their three best-known stars: Justin Verlander
, who struggled much of last season; Miguel Cabrera
, who is coming back from significant ankle surgery; and David Price, who was acquired to help fill the gap if Scherzer walked away. The Tigers could win the AL Central again, but it's also possible they will finish fourth, given the improvement of other teams. 9. Boston Red Sox
There is one sure thing about this team: By Aug. 1, there could be significant change in the group that reports to spring training. The Red Sox have a lot of assets and perhaps a lot of need, especially at the front end of the rotation. But with a greatly improved lineup, Boston might mirror its regular-season success of 2013, hitting its way past a lot of problems. In conversations with evaluators, there was a greater range of opinions on the AL East than any other division, so the ranking of the East teams, including the Red Sox, O's and Yankees, is not made with a lot of confidence. 10. Baltimore Orioles
The O's will catch the ball and they'll make the best possible use of their starting pitching, especially if Chris Tillman
continues to make strides and Kevin Gausman
's talent manifests. But while Baltimore won its division by 12 games last season, its margin for error is now razor-thin, given the winter improvements of the Red Sox, Yankees and Blue Jays. The Orioles' best route to repeating as the AL East champions is to replicate the incredible performance of their bullpen. Honorable mention Chicago White Sox:
No team did more to get better this winter, with the additions of Jeff Samardzija
, Melky Cabrera
, closer David Robertson
and setup man Zach Duke
, additions to a team anchored by superstars Chris Sale
and Jose Abreu
. New York Yankees:
There are real strengths here, including a dominant bullpen and good defense, and the Yankees have a deeper roster than in the past. But it's a hard team to read because of the collective age of the group, the uncertainty in the lineup and the greatest of unknowns: When Masahiro Tanaka
's elbow is going to blow out, finally. Their most important pitcher effectively has a ticking time bomb in his arm. San Francisco Giants:
This is where the Giants are most comfortable, we can assume, flying on the edge of the radar, underrated and underappreciated, despite winning three championships in the past five years. Pablo Sandoval
is gone, raising questions about the lineup. Madison Bumgarner
's performance in the postseason last year was historic, but it also raised questions among longtime evaluators about whether he will pay a physical toll in 2015 for the brave innings he amassed in October. Nobody knows what to expect out of Matt Cain
, or Tim Lincecum
, or Tim Hudson
. Will they be good? Can they be great? Will they be less than that? Here is
a projected lineup and rotation for the Giants. Cleveland Indians:
A team of great promise, with a rotation that is good and getting better, a lineup that should be more productive and a defense that has to get better after hitting rock bottom last season. Miami Marlins:
They're hopeful that Jose Fernandez
will be back by midseason to help a team that's getting better. San Diego Padres:
They went all-in, and Matt Kemp
, Wil Myers
and Justin Upton
will determine whether the bet pays off. Around the league
• More on Scherzer: The Nationals' deal with the pitcher will be greater than the $144 million he turned down from the Tigers last spring, writes Svrluga
. The Tigers wish Scherzer the best
The Yankees weren't bluffing
about Scherzer, writes John Harper.
Charles LeClaire/USA TODAY SportsYovani Gallardo reportedly is close to being traded to the Texas Rangers.
• Yovani Gallardo
could be on the move
. Gerry Fraley explains why a Rangers deal for Gallardo makes sense
. The tradehasn't been finalized
, writes Jeff Wilson.
The Rangers' rotation is again full of questions, about the future of Matt Harrison
, about how seamless the return of Derek Holland
will be. Gallardo and Yu Darvish
would be good rotation anchors. Moves, deals and decisions
1. Fred Wilpon was named chairman of MLB's finance committee
, yet another indication of the Mets' strong ties to the commissioner's office.
2. Erik Bedard
signed with the Dodgers
3. The Giants worked out a two-year deal
with Gregor Blanco
. NL West
• Patrick Saunders takes a look at the Rockies in an alphabetical way
. NL Central
• The Cubs have the firepower
to make midseason moves. The Cubs are happy they haven't dealt their top prospects
• A Pirates newcomer
wants to face Aroldis Chapman
• Michael Wacha
says he's extremely healthy
• The Cardinals plan to honor Oscar Taveras
in many ways.
• St. Louis believes Jason Heyward will help revive its offense
. NL East
• Charlie Manuel is set to join the Phillies
in spring training.
• The progress of the Phillies' prospects will define the upcoming season
. AL East
• The Orioles continue to look for a left-handed-hitting outfielder, writes Roch Kubatko
• It would be madness for the Jays to give up key parts in their search for a Paul Beeston replacement, writes Scott Stinson
By the way: Beeston is currently working without a contract. AL Central
Minnesotans are counting on the Twins to cure the malaise
, writes Tom Powers. Lastly
• Steve Dilbeck writes about how the Dodgers might not be on air
again next season.
• Washington is a candidate
to host the 2018 All-Star Game.
And today will be better than yesterday.