Rich getting richer: Scherzer makes Nats clear favorites
Adding highly coveted free-agent arm frees up trade chips to replenish bullpen
Here we go. The biggest free agent on the market, arguably the best pitcher in the game over the last 2 1/2 seasons, has agreed to a deal with the team that already has the best starting rotation in the Major Leagues.
Neither Max Scherzer nor the Nationals have been complete on their own. They are a marriage made from disappointing Octobers, and together assure that the Nats are the team to beat in 2015.
While Nationals general manager Mike Rizzo started the offseason saying he didn't expect to make any major pitching acquisitions, Washington has seemed like one of the most likely destinations for Scherzer throughout a process that has lasted 10 weeks. It's not so much about an immediate need as a long-term fit, as Jordan Zimmermann and Doug Fister are eligible for free agency after this season and Stephen Strasburg is only under control for two more seasons.
Oh, and it doesn't hurt anything that Rizzo was Arizona's scouting director when the D-backs took Scherzer with the 11th pick overall in the 2006 Draft. Rizzo has followed every step of Scherzer's development and monitored his health. It speaks well of Scherzer that it is the Nationals who have made him look wise to have turned down that six-year, $144 million contract extension last spring, when the Tigers made a major effort to keep him off the market.
A CBSSports.com report on Sunday said Scherzer reached a seven-year contract with the Nationals. A source told MLB.com's Jesse Sanchez the same thing.
Despite averaging 93 wins over the last three seasons, the Nationals have not advanced beyond the Division Series. The rotation that posted a Major League-best 3.04 ERA during the regular season pitched even better than that against the Giants last October, but only Fister got a win in a series that got away after manager Matt Williams lifted Zimmermann one out from a 1-0 win in Game 2.
Scherzer made 10 postseason starts for Detroit the last four years, including one in the 2012 World Series, but the Tigers were unable to get the championship that they have chased so hard for owner Mike Ilitch. Some felt Scherzer would wind up going back to the Tigers, but general manager Dave Dombrowski has known all along that wasn't going to happen, which, in part, was why he traded for David Price when he had a chance last July.
For the Nationals, the question is: How much pitching do you need?
Owner Ted Lerner is looking at a payroll of more than $160 million with Scherzer added to a rotation that features Zimmermann, Fister, Strasburg, Gio Gonzalez and Tanner Roark, who delivered a 3.0 fWAR in his first full season (ranking 43rd among MLB starters). But look for Rizzo to trade Zimmermann or Fister.
Shortstop Ian Desmond, like Zimmermann and Fister, is among seven Nationals who will be eligible for free agency after the season, and was in the middle of trade rumors last week. We shouldn't completely rule out a mega-trade involving a starter and Desmond, but given the talent on hand, the Nationals' mandate is to win the 2015 World Series, not manage the roster for future seasons.
Here's a thought: Could the Nationals trade Zimmermann or Fister to the Royals for one of their power relievers? Rafael Soriano left as a free agent after Williams turned the closer's job over to Drew Storen, and Rizzo has traded away begoggled setup man Tyler Clippard and versatile lefty Ross Detwiler, so the bullpen is a major concern.
No matter what Rizzo does next, adding Scherzer makes the Nationals the strongest favorite in the Major Leagues. They won the NL East by 17 games last year, and Scherzer seems like quite a nice counter to the Marlins' addition of Mat Latos.
He's going to be a killer in the National League -- not that this is anything new. He won the American League Cy Young Award in 2013 and finished fifth this season.
Given his low-mileage arm, he might just be starting. It's a good bet for any team that can afford him, even one that already has a stacked rotation.