Could Max Scherzer be the next Justin Verlander?
No, we’re not talking about their careers; both pitchers have already established themselves as future Hall of Famers, picking up multiple Cy Youngs and a World Series ring apiece.
But just as the Astros’ 2017 trade for Verlander will long be remembered as one of the best in-season acquisitions in baseball history, might Scherzer have a similar impact a few months from now?
Nobody is counting the Nationals out after 16 games, especially not in a National League East separated by only a few games from top to bottom. But Washington’s injury woes -- Juan Soto and Stephen Strasburg are both on the injured list -- and underperforming rotation have some wondering if the Nationals would look to deal Scherzer this summer if the season went awry.
“He’s been such a force, he’s almost in a better spot than Verlander was in 2017, because Verlander wasn’t pitching this well for the Tigers for the two years leading up to that Deadline,” an American League executive said. “Those two carry the same kind of fire-breathing impact at the top of a rotation.”
Scherzer, who is slated to become a free agent at the end of the season, has full no-trade rights as a 10-and-5 player, giving him the power to control his destiny between now and the July 30 Trade Deadline (yes, it’s July 30 this year, at 4 p.m. ET). He’ll turn 37 in July, so the idea of joining a contender if the Nationals are out of the postseason race doesn’t seem so far-fetched.
“Max is a competitor,” said a source close to Scherzer. “If he thinks he has a chance to win, I think he would be open to several scenarios.”
“He doesn’t strike me as a guy who likes sitting out of the playoffs,” the AL exec added.
Scherzer is earning $35 million this season, so a team acquiring him in late-July would have to take on about $12 million of the contract. That could limit the number of teams willing to make that move, though just as Verlander pushed the Astros over the top in 2017, Scherzer could have a similar effect this fall.
“He’s a first-ballot Hall of Famer off to a great start,” a National League executive said. “I’m sure he’ll be a popular name.”
Unlike Verlander, who was signed for two additional seasons when he was traded to the Astros, Scherzer’s expiring contract makes him a pure rental. The price tag would be unclear, though as we’ve seen in recent years, rentals are often attainable without giving up a top prospect.
Which teams might be in the market for a veteran starter of Scherzer’s caliber? Finances will likely play a role in determining that come July, but here are five intriguing possibilities:
Angels: The Halos are off to a nice start despite an AL-worst 5.01 rotation ERA. If they are playing well, they could look to add a top arm such as Scherzer to help end their seven-year postseason drought and get Mike Trout back to October.
Athletics: Billy Beane has never been shy about making a big acquisition when he sees a chance to make a postseason run. Oakland’s young rotation would be an ideal group for Scherzer to lead.
Cardinals: St. Louis has its eyes on a third straight postseason, but the rotation could need some help. Scherzer was born in St. Louis, went to high school 20 miles outside the city, was drafted by the Cardinals out of high school and attended the University of Missouri, so a return home could be appealing to him.
Giants: With Buster Posey, Brandon Belt, Johnny Cueto, Kevin Gausman and Brandon Crawford all potentially headed for free agency, San Francisco likely has one final shot to contend with this current group. Scherzer would help put the Giants in position to battle the Dodgers and Padres down the stretch.
Yankees: The Yankees are always a candidate for a big midseason acquisition, and given the fragile state of their rotation, Scherzer would be the ideal candidate to bolster it for a playoff run. The biggest question is whether the Yankees will bounce back and be in position to make such a run.
Exception to the Rule
The Rule 5 Draft can often be a dart throw for teams, but this year’s process was more unusual than ever. With no Minor League season to scout in 2020, teams had very little statistical data to rely upon when scouring the lists of Rule 5-eligible players.
“COVID, from a scouting perspective, made it a little like a tree that fell in the woods,” Mariners GM Jerry Dipoto said. “Did it really happen?”
Seattle’s staff combed through any available information, which consisted primarily of TrackMan data and video from games at alternate training sites -- at least from those teams that opted in for the league’s information-sharing program last year.
The Mariners wound up selecting right-hander Will Vest, a 25-year-old with all of 132 1/3 innings in the Minors, only 33 2/3 of which came above Class A. They didn’t have a single written scouting report on Vest since he had been in the low levels of the Minors, when his fastball clocked in at 90-93 mph rather than the 93-97 mph he’s firing now.
“Our only sight of Will was throwing occasionally on video at the alt site,” Dipoto said. “Our analysts were really bullish on Will going into the Draft. Some of the things that stand out, we didn’t know.”
A converted infielder out of Stephen F. Austin University, Vest has impressed Dipoto with his combination of athleticism, fearlessness and a thirst for data during his short time with Seattle. He’s quickly earned the trust of manager Scott Servais; in his first eight Major League outings, Vest has allowed one earned run over 9 2/3 innings, good for a minuscule 0.93 ERA.
“When he showed up the first day of Spring Training, you watched him throw in the bullpen and liked what he was doing,” Dipoto said. “He was a first-timer wearing a Mariners uniform in Major League camp and you would never have known it. He carries himself with confidence and a look of ‘I’ve got this.’”
A team selecting a player in the Rule 5 Draft must keep him on the big league roster all season or offer that player back to his former team for $50,000. Based on the way Vest has pitched thus far in 2021, the Mariners won’t be offering him back to the Tigers any time soon.
“Using the first three weeks as a barometer, it was a really good pick for us,” Dipoto said.
Don’t feel too bad for the Tigers, though. Detroit selected outfielder Akil Baddoo from the Twins in the same Rule 5 Draft, another of the dozen or so picks in this year’s Draft that has stuck with his new teams.
New York minute
The Yankees’ sluggish start has provided plenty of fodder for the fan base, sparking passionate -- read: angry -- conversation on sports radio and social media.
Outside of New York -- namely in rival front offices -- the Yankees’ 6-11 start isn’t a big enough sample size to start counting them out.
“I think it’s just bad luck; bad timing that everyone in their lineup is struggling at once,” an AL executive said. “We’re only 10 percent into the season and they still scare the hell out of me. I’m not ready to craft any narratives there.”
Another NL exec pointed to similar stretches for the Yankees in recent years, only not to open the season, a time when everything is magnified. How quickly can things turn around? Look no further than Oakland, where the Athletics won their 11th straight game on Wednesday.
“Look at the A’s; they started 1-7 and people were calling for the owner to sell the team,” the NL exec said. “Now they’re in first place. It’s still so early.”