The Detroit Tigers have been the fortunate recipients of some of the best pitching baseball has had to offer over the last several years. Max Scherzer, the 2013 American League Cy Young Award winner, is one of three aces on the 2014 staff, but may end up donning different colors for the next chapter of his career.
Scherzer is coming off another outstanding season with a 18-5 record in 220 and 1/3 innings pitched. Across 33 starts he posted a 3.15 ERA, 2.85 FIP, and 3.12 xFIP. His 10.29 strikeouts per nine placed him third highest among all major league pitchers and one spot higher than this year’s AL Cy Young winner, Corey Kluber. The right-hander yielded 18 home runs, tied for the lowest single season mark of his career.
But what kind of free agent is Scherzer?
Age: 31 on Jul. 27
Agent: Boras Corporation
Qualifying Offer: Yes
Scherzer throws a fourseam fastball, changeup, slider, and curveball. His fastball sits in the low-to-mid 90’s with natural sink and his slider and changeup sit in the mid-80’s. His curveball sits a hair below 78 miles per hour. Scherzer pitches from a three-quarter arm slot that adds some deception to his pitches. The right-hander has seen decline in his average fastball velocity over the past three seasons, but his 93.99 miles per hour mark for 2014 is just slightly less than the 94.37 he averaged in his rookie season of 2008. Scherzer began using the curveball in 2012.
The right-hander relies on the strikeout and it has provided the highest percentage of his outs over the last three seasons. Previously Scherzer was more of a ground ball pitcher but the addition of the curveball has lead to more swings and misses. For his career the former first-round pick has generated swings on 29.6 percent of pitches outside the zone and a 67.1 percent of pitches inside the zone. His career whiff rate is 11 percent and his balance between ground ball and fly outs has been fairly evenly distributed in recent years.
Scherzer is an undisputed ace. His resume and skill set are among the best in baseball and he’s been consistent throughout his six full seasons in the majors. The right-hander has averaged more than a strikeout per innings during his career and is coming off his third consecutive season with ten-plus strikeouts per nine. Scherzer has the ability to regularly pitch deep into ballgames and lasted less than five innings on just one occasion during 2014.
It’s easy to gush about the ace and the fact he isn’t a fireballer actually bodes well for the future. Scherzer relies more on movement and location when it comes to his fastball and isn’t overpowering at 94 miles per hour. Compare that to his teammate on the Detroit Tigers Justin Verlander who has seen his average fastball velocity drop for six straight years and struggled with arm fatigue and consistency in 2014. Scherzer’s profile suggests that he’ll be able to maintain his current level of play even as he turns the corner to the wrong side of 30.
There’s also the fact that Scherzer has plenty of playoff experience and has proven an ability to handle the spotlight. In 12 playoff appearances, 10 starts, the right-hander has a 3.73 ERA and a 2.94 FIP in 62 and 2/3 innings pitched.
Giving a pitcher who’s on the wrong side of 30 a nine-figure contract is a significant risk, even for one of Scherzer’s pedigree. He has thrown more than 21,000 pitches and 1239 and 1/3 innings since 2008, but has only eclipsed 200 innings in two seasons. Scherzer doesn’t have a particular issue with the walk, but his career 2.82 walkers per nine innings isn’t exactly low. Pitchers with high strikeout and walk rates tend to throw more pitches in higher-stress situations per start. Add in the playoff innings he’s thrown over the last four seasons and there are quite a few miles on his arm.
Scherzer is going to command a six or seven-year deal with an average annual salary north of $24 million. He reportedly turned down a six-year $144 million extension offer from the Tigers back in March. The club then made a statement about the negotiations and painted a negative picture of their ace. Remember: this occurred one week before the season started. Why the club decided to make those comments is unknown, but it did put the wheels in motion for Scherzer to seek a different employer for 2015 and beyond.
It’s become somewhat cliche, but with Scott Boras as his agent, Scherzer will not be an easy sign for any club. Not to suggest the super-agent devalues his clients to clubs, but he is known to play the waiting game and go above the general manager to negotiate a deal. He also is known for taking his clients all the way to free agency to maximize their payday, which lines up with Scherzer turning down the extension offer from the Tigers. All teams understand the process of signing a marquee free agent is timely. But at the same time, having to wait makes it difficult for a club that is talking to several players.
Cost & Conclusion: Mariners Perspective
The Seattle Mariners have an ace in Felix Hernandez and a bonafide No. 2 in Hisashi Iwakuma. There’s also James Paxton knocking on the door as a solid No. 3 starter and Taijuan Walker who despite struggling in 2014 still has a high ceiling. Add Roenis Elias to the mix and Seattle doesn’t really have a need in the rotation outside of a couple back-end options to add depth. Signing a pitcher like Scherzer makes any pitching staff better, but it could allow the Mariners to trade one of their young pitchers for a bat.
Walker and Paxton have come up in various trade rumors over the last 14 months though it’s unclear whether GM Jack Zduriencik is willing to move one right now. As a young, controllable left-hander, Elias should draw trade interest as well if the club chooses to go that route.
If the Mariners do move on of their young pitchers a rotation including Felix, Scherzer, Iwakuma, and Paxton/Walker figures to be the best in the AL West and possibly the entire American League. The temptation for putting together such a star-studded rotation has to be there, but given the team’s needs in the outfield, the money Scherzer would command is likely better spent elsewhere.
It’s also worth noting that Iwakuma, who’s due $7 million in 2015, is a free agent after one more season and there haven’t been any reported extension talks between the two parties at this time. It’s possible those could come at a later date, but there’s no doubt that Kuma’s spring injury and decline in performance towards the end of the season are concerns for the club. Presuming the M’s are willing to add a third $20-plus million salary to their payroll, Scherzer could serve as an insurance policy for 2016 if Iwakuma leaves at season’s end.
The goal for Seattle this winter is to get better — how and what they do to get there aren’t all that important. It’s obvious that offensive upgrades are part of this winter’s plan, but there’s nothing wrong with adding more to the run prevention side if the right bat isn’t available.
Bob Dutton of the Tacoma News Tribune hasn’t heard anything to suggest the M’s are in on the top free agent starters, but it’s still very early in the process. Keep in mind that pitchers of Scherzer’s ilk, this year includes Jon Lester and James Shields, typically take their time with making a final decision and usually sign sometime during December once the Winter Meetings have taken place.
Realistically the floor for Scherzer is set at six years and $144 million, the offer he declined from the Tigers in the spring. If Seattle wanted to get creative and make some changes, anything is possible — they have the money to spend. Would signing another pitcher to a deal in excess of $150 million be the best use of resources? Probably not. But the goal for this club is improving, and they are exploring every avenue they feel they can to do so.