Former Detroit Tiger Max Scherzer inked a whopping 7 year $210 million contract with the Washington Nationals last Wednesday, the largest deal ever by a right-handed pitcher. Scherzer’s contract narrowly misses the 7-year $215 million deal of Los Angeles Dodgers lefty ace, Clayton Kershaw, who signed the contract extension prior to the 2014 season. The move sent shockwaves across the baseball world as many now consider the Nationals to be favored to win the 2015 World Series. Vegas Insider lists Washington’s odds at 5-1, compared to the next in line, Los Angeles Dodgers, at 13-2.
Scherzer comes off an amazing two-year stretch with the Detroit Tigers. In 2013 Scherzer had a career year, going 21-3 with a 2.90 ERA and .97 WHIP, starting the All-Star game for the American League, and winning the American League Cy Young that season. This past season Scherzer’s numbers dipped a little bit going 18-5, posting a 3.15 ERA and 1.17 WHIP. The righty ace took a massive gamble by passing up a six-year offer worth $144 million from Detroit, but was ultimately rewarded by Washington.
Scherzer will improve an already stellar Washington pitching staff. Last season the Nationals starting rotation, lead by righty ace Jordan Zimmermann and star Stephen Strasburg, had the lowest ERA in the majors at 3.03. Nats pitching allowed the fewest walks in the majors with 352, and finished second in the National League and third in the majors in shutouts with 19, four behind the St. Louis Cardinals.
But things are not as rosy as they seem in Washington. Despite public claims to the contrary, there are reports surfacing that the Nationals are looking to trade one of their star pitchers - Strasburg, Zimmermann and Doug Fister lead the rumor mill. The 28-year-old Zimmermann and 30-year-old Fister are both free agents after this coming season. Strasburg, 26, is scheduled to become a free agent after the 2016 season. Trading any one of these pitchers would only be a step backwards for a team going all-in for this season. Even then Scherzer is not a given to make the Nationals World Series contenders. Teams that win 100 games or more rarely if ever win the World Series, the last two teams to do so are the 2009 and 1998 New York Yankees.
With the signing of Scherzer, the Nationals now have six starting pitchers for just five spots. Multiple reports have stated Washington will move third year pitcher Tanner Roark to the bullpen. Roark in his first full season in the Majors went 15-10 with a 2.85 ERA and 1.09 WHIP. Roark is expected to replace Tyler Clippard in the bullpen, who was traded by the Nationals to Oakland in exchange for shortstop Yunel Escobar earlier in the month. Or one of the starters could be traded as rumored. Ken Rosenthal of FOX Sports suggests Washington could net an elite prospect like the Chicago Cubs third baseman Kris Bryant, or Houston Astros top prospect, shortstop Carlos Correa, or even Noah Syndergaard, top pitching prospect from their division rival New York Mets.
There is also a long history, even recently, of these mega contracts not panning out in the long run. Pitchers like Barry Zito, Johan Santana, and CC Sabathia, have each had their struggles after signing their record contracts. Zito massively underperformed his 7 year $126 million contract, posting a 4.62 ERA and 1.44 WHIP during his stint with the San Francisco Giants, and was left off the 2010 playoff roster. Unlike Zito, Santana pitched like the ace he was paid to be in his stint with the Mets, posting a 3.18 ERA and 1.20 WHIP in his time in New York. But Santana missed significant time due to injuries, losing two full seasons due to separate tears in his pitching shoulder. CC Sabathia has missed significant time due to injuries as well, and has seen his performance drop dramatically from the start of his contract in 2009. In his first four years with the Yankees Sabathia posted a 3.22 ERA and 1.17 WHIP. Since then Sabathia has struggled. In 2013 Sabathia had the worst year of his career, putting a 4.78 ERA and 1.37 WHIP. 2014 Sabathia fared no better; in just eight starts last season, Sabathia posted a 5.28 ERA and 1.47 WHIP before being shut down due to a degenerative knee back in May.
The Nationals must be concerned about the history of pitchers often struggling in the back end of these mega-deals. Buyer beware.