It’s official. The press conference has been held, and Max Scherzer is now a member of the Washington Nationals.
By now, everyone is aware of the details of the contract: 7 years, $210 million, with half of the cost being paid during Scherzer’s time in Washington and the other half being doled out from 2022-2028. It’s the largest contract ever handed out to a right-handed pitcher and naturally, it’s been given a lot of talk across national airwaves.
It’s also shot the Nationals up to the top of the list for teams to watch in 2015. Prior to the Scherzer signing, Washington was at 10-1 odds to win the World Series. Now, they’re easily the favorite at 6-1, ranked ahead of the Dodgers (8-1), and a handful of teams (Red Sox, Cubs, Angels, Cardinals) who all sit at 12-1. Clearly the bookies are buying into what’s already being pegged as the Greatest Rotation in Baseball.
Unfortunately, championships are won in the postseason, not the offseason. We won’t really know how well Mike Rizzo’s moves will pay off until the actual games start in April; and Vegas won’t know how accurate their odds are until we get closer to October.
But even without the Vegas odds, it’s hard to argue that this move doesn’t make the Nationals immediately better. Scherzer is a Cy Young winner who’s won at least 15 games each of the past four seasons. He’s posted an ERA+ over 100 all but one season in the Majors, and, most importantly, he has postseason pitching experience, including one start in the World Series.
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The more intriguing part of this deal actually lies beyond 2015, though. What does this deal mean for the Nationals beyond just this season?
If history tells us anything, it’s that the Nationals almost certainly won’t get their full money’s worth from Scherzer. As Jayson Stark from ESPN wrote, history is littered with stories of seven-year deals that haven’t panned out for the teams who have handed them out. And Scherzer is already 30. The Nats almost have to consider it a success if they get four good years out of their shiny new toy.
Of course, that’s the way free agency works now. You have to overpay to get anyone. Scherzer’s Cy Young (and his agent, Scott Boras) definitely weren’t going to drive down the price, either.
This begs the question, why did the Nationals even sign Scherzer in the first place? They already boasted the best rotation in the sport by ERA. Why break the bank for another starter on a roster loaded with them? It’s in the answers to these questions that we can start to pull together a better picture of the Nationals real plans.
For starters (pun intended), it means the team, for whatever reason, doesn’t think it’s going to be able to keep all of its young pitching talent. That may mean they think Jordan Zimmermann will find a new home once the year is out. Or, more intriguing, that they think they’ll be outbid when the time comes for Strasburg to cash in.
The Scherzer contract also muddies the water on the Ian Desmond situation. The deferred portion of the contract will help free up money, but with Jayson Werth and Ryan Zimmerman eating up $21 million and $14 million respectively in salary in addition to Scherzer, it’s hard to see them handing out sums of $20 million annually for their shortstop, which Desmond will likely receive on the open market.
Add to that the fact that the Nationals have traded for Yunel Escobar and Trea Turner, and it seems that the team has braced itself for the fact that Desmond will not be wearing a Washington uniform beyond 2015
Individually, these moves don’t seem like much. The Scherzer deal; the acquisition of Escobar and Turner; the dispatching of Tyler Clippard, also set to be a free agent after 2015. Put it all together, though, and it’s enough to make any Nationals fan wonder: is Mike Rizzo going all in on 2015?
It may not appear that way immediately. After all, the team has managed to stockpile young talent that they’ll hope can replace the players they’re likely to lose. But prospects are prospects, and, as the saying goes, “A proven player in the hand is worth two prospects in the bush leagues.” (Okay, I’m taking a little creative liberty there, but you get the point.)
If those prospects pan out, the Nationals can count on being relevant for a long while. If they don’t, on the other hand? Then the Nationals might end up in a rebuilding situation. Given those fact, it looks like Mike Rizzo, for better or worse, has looked at 2015 and decided that it’s time to push all his chips to the center of the table.
The Nationals have seen a version of this story play out befre. In 2013, following a crushing defeat in Game 5 of the 2012 NLDS to the St. Louis Cardinals, manager Davey Johnson announced that the upcoming season was “World Series or bust.” But the Nationals never lived up to the burden of expectations. They stumbled out of the gate and never recovered. They missed the postseason altogether, and the season was a bust by more standards than just Johnson’s.
This time feels a little different. For one thing, Matt Williams isn’t about to come out and make grand proclamations about expectations. For another, this Nationals team is more seasoned. The 2013 Nationals were still reeling from their first postseason series, which ended in a meltdown. This team has had time to learn from that experience, as well as their 2014 failures.
There’s also the fact that the Nationals are in a bind with free agents. So many of their young stars who were just starting to shine in 2012 are now nearing the end of their contracts, and there’s no guarantee they’ll stick around.
Mike Rizzo knows that. He knows that this talent base may not be around much longer. Now, he’s acting on it. If there’s one thing that we can glean from the acquisition of Max Scherzer, it’s that Rizzo thinks 2015 is World Series or Bust.