Here we are in the middle of January and the industry’s No. 1 free agent, Max Scherzer, is still unsigned. So I spent this week checking with as many sources as possible, on teams and otherwise, to find out what is really going on with the elite starter.
I found mostly denials of involvement from teams we believe to be in the Scherzer sweepstakes, and then it dawned on me: Most of my sources are MLB team presidents, general managers, assistant general managers, managers, players and agents. Under Scott Boras, Scherzer's agent, modus operandi for players of this stature (in the $140 million to $200 million range) is to go directly to the owners. He knows that every GM would love to have Scherzer in their rotation; it just comes down to money, years and risk. It’s really an owner decision, not one made by the executives under them.
For most clubs, the GMs are in the loop at all times, but that's not always the case. Boras has always had carte blanche, access to meet with most owners directly in person or on the phone. Owners also know that GMs might recommend not signing Scherzer for economic reasons because of dollars or contract length, but owners want to win at the end of the day, too. They also know that Scherzer could be the difference in reaching the postseason. Therefore, as I went digging, although I couldn’t find a raging fire, I did find smoke, some smoldering and an occasional small fire.
When Scherzer turned down $144 million from the Tigers last March, it was a stop sign for other owners. For owners from other teams to go through the stop sign, they must know the full situation, examine the maze, and only after time -- when options become limited -- do they feel compelled to make an offer of this magnitude. Once they know they’re not trading for Cole Hamels, Jordan Zimmermann or Johnny Cueto -- and not signing Jon Lester, for that matter -- do they get involved, if winning is their priority and they have the resources to spend.
Scherzer is going to spring training next month with someone, and it takes just one owner to wake up this morning and decide he’s going to do what it takes to sign him. Here are eight clubs I still think have some chance of signing Scherzer despite the denials they’ll make after reading this article.
The Tigers are still the front-runners to me, because we know about their $144 million offer and the fact that they’ve never publicly said they are out on him. They’d like to have him, they know how far they’re willing to go, and owner Mike Ilitch and team president Dave Dombrowski have a solid relationship with Boras. The Tigers are aware that Justin Verlander could be in decline, Anibal Sanchez is a health risk, David Price is a free agent at the end of 2015 and Rick Porcello is wearing a Red Sox uniform. If they want to win the division again with a chance at another World Series, they need to sign Scherzer. A key factor in their favor: Scherzer loves Detroit and wants to return.
Although it’s doubtful the Red Sox would pay Scherzer and not Lester, it remains possible. GM Ben Cherington would have to move Daniel Nava, Allen Craig and Shane Victorino first to gain some financial freedom, which would be extremely difficult. However, the interesting part of the Red Sox is that they’d be willing to pay a higher average annual value for less years, as they did with Hanley Ramirez. As long as it’s at least a near record-breaking figure, that could nab him. The Red Sox would like to trade for Hamels instead but are balking at giving up Mookie Betts. I don’t blame them, considering the long list of prospects they could offer instead. The Red Sox aren’t winning a World Series without a No. 1 starter, and the fact that they won’t lose a first-round pick if they sign Scherzer makes it an intriguing situation. They'd keep all the prospects and get the ace. They were competitive on Lester, so we know the funds are present.
The Dodgers’ ownership just spent $87.5 million (for departing contracts of Matt Kemp, Dan Haren and Dee Gordon, and new contracts for Jimmy Rollins, Brandon McCarthy, Brett Anderson, Howie Kendrick), but in all the offseason moves, it took a 94-win team and made it into an 88- to 90-win team without the big bats of Kemp and Ramirez and the speed of Gordon. Magic Johnson, one of the team's minority owners, has communicated it’s World Series or bust for this team. Zack Greinke has an opt-out clause after the 2015 season, and Brett Anderson hasn’t pitched 50 innings in any of the past three seasons. If the Dodgers really want to win, signing Scherzer would cap off their offseason and protect them if the moves they’ve made from offense to defense backfire. A rotation of Clayton Kershaw, Greinke, Scherzer and Hyun-Jin Ryu would make them the favorites to win the NL pennant.
The Yankees have denied involvement in this chase both publicly and privately. However, several Yankees executives would still love to have Scherzer, knowing he’d be the difference-maker in getting back to the postseason and possibly another World Series appearance. The late George Steinbrenner would have already signed Scherzer, but his son Hal, smart and diligent, is looking at an ugly spreadsheet of future financial exposure with Alex Rodriguez, CC Sabathia and Mark Teixeira, and doesn’t want to add to it. But he still could change his mind for Yankees fans at the last minute.
Nationals GM Mike Rizzo rates Scherzer at the top of the free-agent pitchers list from both the 2015 and 2016 classes. The Nationals offered lucrative long-term contracts to both Zimmermann and Ian Desmond, and were turned down. Therefore, by signing Scherzer, they could then deal Zimmermann and Desmond for younger MLB-ready players and prospects, continuing to build their strong farm system while still being able to be a World Series contender. A rotation of Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg, Doug Fister, Gio Gonzalez and Tanner Roark would certainly be as good as the one with Zimmermann in it. Otherwise they’re faced with one last year for Zimmermann and Desmond -- not the best plan for an organization thinking long term.
GM Jerry Dipoto has spent the past two years trading for young, controllable pitchers such as Andrew Heaney, Tyler Skaggs and Nick Tropeano. Every move the Angels have been making has been to lower payroll and get younger. He’s done such a great job that the Angels had the most regular-season wins in the majors. However, this is owner Arte Moreno’s team, and he’s well aware that Garrett Richards (torn patellar tendon in left knee) won’t be ready until well after Opening Day, C.J. Wilson might not completely rebound, and Jered Weaver continues to lose velocity. Enter Scherzer, who would not only give them an ace but a much better chance of advancing in the posteason than they had last year with much the same team.
I really believe the Marlins could end up with either Scherzer or James Shields. Stop laughing. The baseball community realizes this team is ready to get back to the postseason, and one of those starters would push them over the top. Although I think it’s more likely they land Shields, I wouldn’t be surprised if owner Jeffrey Loria woke up this morning and said to himself: "I’m going to change my personal and team image completely with one move and go for it." Loria did a good job backloading Giancarlo Stanton's contract, and could use the same philosophy with earlier out-clauses for Scherzer.
The Giants have watched Matt Cain and Tim Lincecum burn out by 27, and now are concerned about Madison Bumgarner after 270 innings. They're also hoping Jake Peavy and Tim Hudson have enough for one more run. They offered $160 million to Lester and $97 million to Pablo Sandoval, so we know they have the money. However, I really don’t think they’re going to change their mind; I doubt they'll make an offer.
If the Blue Jays were able to sign Scherzer, they might win the division because of the pop they now have in the middle of their lineup. It’s unlikely GM Alex Anthopoulos will able to convince Rogers Communication to make that type of expenditure, but with Dan Duquette reportedly close to joining their front office, you can't count out the Blue Jays in the Scherzer sweepstakes. If they made a bid for him, they wouldn't go past five years (for him or anyone), and Scherzer is asking for six or seven.
Scherzer will have a home at this time next month. Now it’s just a matter of which owner is going to wake up on the right side of the bed and decide to go for it. The Tigers are the favorites, but they’re not alone, despite the denials.