Scherzer's D-backs roots preceded star turn

Arizona set to oppose its 2006 first-round pick in Game 3 at Chase Field

October 30th, 2023

PHOENIX -- When he takes the mound Monday night to start Game 3 of the World Series, Rangers right-hander  will be doing it on the same field where he made his big league debut in 2008.

Scherzer was 23 years old then, and the prize of Arizona’s farm system. It seems a lifetime ago. And in many ways, it was, given all Scherzer has accomplished since. But the fact those accomplishments occurred in a number of uniforms -- none of them belonging to the D-backs -- is still a sore spot with Arizona fans.

But the pitcher the D-backs traded in December 2009 was not the pitcher Scherzer ended up becoming. And while it was clearly a miss by Arizona's front office, the credit belongs to Scherzer for turning out to be one of his generation’s best pitchers.

Drafting, developing and debuting
In preparing for the 2006 MLB Draft, the D-backs were all in on selecting Scherzer, who was a junior at the University of Missouri, but none more so than scouting director Mike Rizzo, who is now the Nationals’ GM.

“I'll never forget Rizz’s comment,” said current Mariners GM and then D-backs front-office executive Jerry Dipoto. “When we were preparing to take Max in the first round that year, he said, ‘This guy’s an animal. This guy changes the Draft.’ And he was 100 percent right.”

Selected 11th overall, Scherzer was represented by agent Scott Boras and was not an easy sign. In fact, he spent part of the 2007 season pitching in independent ball and a deal was not done until just minutes before the signing deadline in May.

"Tenths of a second were showing on the clock," Josh Byrnes, the D-backs' GM at the time, said. "A lot of discussion in the final 10 minutes."

Scherzer got a Major League contract, a four-year, $4.3 million deal that included bonuses that made it worth up to $6 million.

His time in the Minor Leagues was brief, as he made his big league debut on April 29, 2008, in relief against the Astros at Chase Field.

“We put him on the fast track and blew him through the Minors because, frankly, there wasn't a lot of reason for him to pitch in the Minor Leagues with his physicality,” Dipoto said. “Just the impact of his fastball was huge, and it remained that way for, well, decades.”

In his debut, Scherzer came out of the bullpen in the third inning and was absolutely dominant, retiring all 13 Astros hitters he faced, seven by strikeout.

"I wanted to get it over," Scherzer said after that game. "That was the main thing. Last night, I almost got in the game and I had to sit back down, and I just wanted to get a game in. I wanted to get my debut over so I could just move on from it. Really, go out there and just pitch. When the phone rang and they told me I was in, it was a relief just to go out there and pitch and not have to worry about all the other things. For me, that's what I enjoy is pitching."

The trade
After his debut, Scherzer was put in the rotation and made three starts before veteran Doug Davis was activated from the injured list. Scherzer was moved back to the bullpen and pitched well, but he was sent to the Minors when the D-backs needed a fresh bullpen arm.

While in the Minors, he was shut down for a while with some inflammation in his right shoulder.

Scherzer made 30 starts for the D-backs in 2009, going 9-11 with a 4.12 ERA and a 108 ERA+.

But 2009 was a rocky one for the organization, with popular manager Bob Melvin dismissed by Byrnes in May and replaced by A.J. Hinch. The team -- which won the NL West in ‘07 and finished 82-80 in ‘08 -- was struggling and finished 70-92.

That offseason, the D-backs knew they needed to add to their starting rotation and fill other holes, but they had a finite amount of payroll flexibility to do it.

At the Winter Meetings, the D-backs, Tigers and Yankees completed a three-team deal in which Arizona gave up Scherzer and Minor League lefty reliever Daniel Schlereth and received right-handed starting pitchers Edwin Jackson and Ian Kennedy.

At the time, the D-backs had some concerns about Scherzer. They worried that he would not be able to stay healthy given his violent delivery, and he was still struggling to harness his secondary stuff. At that time, he had his electric fastball and a decent changeup.

Getting Kennedy, a highly regarded prospect for the Yankees, and Jackson, who had an electric fastball himself, seemed like the right move.

"For us to enter into any trade like that and give up Max Scherzer, who is a very talented young starter, we feel like we needed to bring in two starters back," Byrnes said at the time.

The aftermath
It’s easy to forget that this didn’t look like a terrible deal for the D-backs. After they bottomed out in 2010, with Byrnes and Hinch both being dismissed in July, Jackson was traded by interim GM Dipoto to the White Sox for right-hander Daniel Hudson.

Kennedy and Hudson would form a potent 1-2 punch in 2011, when Kennedy won 21 games and Hudson 16 as the D-backs unexpectedly won the NL West.

Scherzer, though, went on to prove the D-backs made a mistake as his career began to take off in 2012.

Over the years, Scherzer stayed healthy, developed a five-pitch repertoire and built a likely first-ballot Hall of Fame career.

“This is where I debuted and broke into the league and really got to establish [myself],” Scherzer said. “Got to play with some great players at the time. Got to learn from those guys at the beginning of my career. And, so, it was short, just basically that year, year and a half. But fortunate for the opportunity that I did get here.”