Scherzer doubles down on his ability, and health
In declining long-term offer, Tigers righty hopes to hit market at peak value
Maybe Max Scherzer wants to be a Cub. Or a Yankee. Or, what the heck, a Dodger.
But that's not it. Not even close. Scherzer is happy where he is. He just doesn't believe the Tigers are properly valuing the standing he carries by being 29 years old and the best pitcher in the American League.
Whatever his thinking, however, Scherzer's decision to turn down an offer from the Tigers that is being widely reported as $24 million a year for six years has put a smile on the faces of executives with a lot of other teams, especially those who figure to have money to spend next winter.
Scherzer says he wants to stay with the Tigers, of course -- "I want to be in Detroit,'' he told MLB.com's Jason Beck on Sunday -- and despite the heavy-handed release issued by the team, and the counter-punch response from agent Scott Boras, talks that break off can always be re-started.
But put the impasse between Scherzer and the Tigers alongside the Indians' decision not to pounce on Justin Masterson's willingness to sign a three- or four-year extension, and suddenly next winter's free-agent class doesn't look as thin as it once did, especially not in regard to starting pitchers.
Scherzer, Masterson, James Shields, Jon Lester, Josh Beckett and the "Japanese Greg Maddux," Kenta Maeda, head the list of the pitching arms that could be available through free agency, although it will be surprising if the Red Sox don't find a way to come to terms ahead of time with Lester. He's reportedly offering ownership a discount comparable to Dustin Pedroia's. Unlike Scherzer, Masterson, Shields and Beckett, Lester remains with the team that drafted him. That makes him less likely to leave -- the sides are currently engaged in negotiations on a long-term extenstion, with a soft deadline of Opening Day -- but in these situations, you never really know.
The Scherzer situation is an example of that, although this isn't as surprising as it might seem. Scherzer is a Boras client, and Boras' clients regularly let the open market establish their value. Jacoby Ellsbury did that this past fall, and after a year in which he put up unremarkable totals (the best being a .355 on-base percentage and 52 stolen bases) he signed the third-biggest contract in the 2013-14 free-agent market. That $153 million, seven-year deal with the Yankees was well beyond anything he was offered by the Red Sox.
If Scherzer's offer from Detroit really was $144 million over six years, with no opt-out clause to give him another taste of free agency before 2019, it would be the same deal that the Phillies gave Cole Hamels in July 2012. Salaries certainly haven't stayed flat since then, and it hardly seems out of line for Boras and Scherzer to believe that a new deal would be affected by Clayton Kershaw's $215 million deal with the Dodgers and Masahiro Tanaka's $175 million deal with the Yankees.
Like Ellsbury, Scherzer -- the reigning American League Cy Young Award winner -- seems likely to upgrade on the proposal from general manager Dave Dombrowski that the Tigers' release said was "a substantial offer that would place him among the highest-paid pitchers in the game." But for that to happen, he has to avoid injury and a downturn in performance. He's betting on himself in a big way.
Scherzer was a tease and ongoing pitching-coach project until the second half of 2012, when his work started paying off in a major way. He had a 4.37 ERA after his first 118 Major League starts. But in the last season and a half, he has become the best pitcher in the AL. That generally means he's also the toughest pitcher in baseball, if in this case not quite the best. You'd be crazy to argue for anyone other than Kershaw in that department.
Scherzer has outpitched his teammate and friend, Justin Verlander, the last year and a half, which could also have entered his thinking. If he's outpitching Verlander, shouldn't he be outearning him?
The Tigers gave Verlander a seven-year, $180 million contract extension last spring. When they traded Prince Fielder and Doug Fister after last season, there was a belief they'd re-invest those savings in Scherzer and Miguel Cabrera.
But now it appears that for the Tigers to keep Scherzer, they are going to have to bid against the pitching-starved Cubs and a lot of other teams. That will be an interesting proposition.
Cubs president of baseball operations Theo Epstein badly wanted to bring Tanaka to Wrigley Field, but he couldn't land him. Assuming that young hitters like Javier Baez, Kris Bryant and Albert Almora continue to develop, Epstein could swallow hard and ask chairman Tom Ricketts to break the bank to land a 30-year-old pitcher. That's old by Epstein's standards, but Scherzer has a relatively low-mileage arm and teams don't get many chances to add No. 1 starters without sacrificing prospects like Baez and Bryant.
Next winter just got a lot more interesting.
Phil Rogers is a columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.