Months after trading away both Prince Fielder and Doug Fister, the Detroit Tigers are heading into the 2014 season with an impossible dilemma on their hands: Max Scherzer's future.
The reigning 2013 AL Cy Young winner is in tow, per USA Today, for 2014 on a one-year, $15.525 million contract, one of the 10 best pitchers in the sport and a key piece of Detroit's World Series aspirations.
He's also poised to become very, very expensive for a team that already fields some of baseball's highest paid players.
In the past, Detroit hasn't been shy about lucrative, long-term deals for established stars.
From Justin Verlander to Miguel Cabrera to Prince Fielder, the Tigers front office, led by Dave Dombrowski, has handed out three contracts in excess of $152 million since the start of the 2008 season.
If Scherzer's free agency arrives—assuming a contract extension isn't worked out between now and the end of the 2014 season—they'll likely be forced to add a fourth massive deal to that list in order to keep the right-handed ace around.
Despite the risk that a one-year deal brings, Scherzer is comfortable with his status and wants to remain in Detroit on a long-term deal. Of course, led by agent Scott Boras, he recognizes the benefits of free agency. During Detroit's Winter Caravan, Scherzer expressed his thoughts to Chris Lott of MLive.com.
"That's everybody's strategy," Scherzer said. "Every player wants to be a free agent."
Before breaking down just how good Scherzer has become and how much money he's poised to make on the open market, let's consider the dilemma facing Detroit's ownership and front office: The franchise is attempting to win a World Series, field a balanced roster and keep their star power happy.
Somewhere, Scherzer's future contract is weaved into that web.
First, this much is clear: Detroit is a much more formidable team with Scherzer on the roster.
It's impossible to know exactly how much the 29-year-old is worth in a trade, but his future price tag would turn off most suitors. Even if the Tigers received an eye-opening package of young talent in return, their team would likely be weakened in 2014.
If injuries or major dips in performance occurred early in 2014, it's possible that the Tigers could hit the reset button and move Scherzer before risking his free-agent defection next winter. Possible, but hard to imagine.
When looking at Detroit's roster, even after moving Prince Fielder's massive contract in a trade with Texas, a glaring gap between great and average players is evident. In order to win, the Tigers need their stars—Verlander, Cabrera, Scherzer, Anibal Sanchez, Joe Nathan and Victor Martinez—to carry the load.
Perhaps, if fewer excessive contracts were present, the team could invest in mid-tier talent to supplement their stars. Or if the team-building strategy is extending into the future, money could be available for another eventual dilemma: Miguel Cabrera's future free agency.
Yes, folks, the best hitter on the planet is set to hit the open market after the 2015 season.
By that time, Cabrera will have transitioned back to first base for two full seasons, could be sitting on the cusp of 500 career home runs and enter free agency poised to be one of the highest-paid players ever.
Considering that both Alex Rodriguez and Albert Pujols garnered contracts in excess of $240 million at the same career juncture, Cabrera will cost a fortune to retain.
Now that Detroit's conundrum is laid out, this question persists: What is Max Scherzer worth?
Let's start the bidding at $150 million.
That number, likely lower than what Scherzer will actually receive if he is available for a bidding war next winter, is an estimate. Considering the numbers that Scherzer put up in 2012 and 2013, it's conservative.
When MLB Network unveiled their Top 10 Right Now starting pitchers earlier this month, "The Shredder" (video below) had Scherzer ranked as the 10th best starting pitcher in the sport heading into the 2014 season. That number is debatable, but it's a jumping off point for discussions.
Over the last two years (37-10, 3.29 ERA, 402 IP, 471 SO), Scherzer has arguably been one of the five best pitchers in the sport, captured a Cy Young and harnessed the nasty, unhittable stuff that made him an intriguing prospect during his time in the Diamondbacks farm system and early career with the Tigers.
As the following chart shows, Scherzer ranks no worse than eighth in any of the following categories: WAR, ERA+, SO/9, SO/BB and FIP.
|Max Scherzer's MLB Ranks (2012-2013)|
If Scherzer continues to rack up scoreless innings, strikeout batters at a ridiculous rate, limit walks and project as a top-tier starter regardless of the defense behind him, he will be valued as a rare commodity on the free-agent market next winter.
According to Cot's Baseball Contracts, six individual pitchers—Clayton Kershaw, Justin Verlander, Felix Hernandez, CC Sabathia, Zack Greinke and Cole Hamels—have signed long-term deals in excess of $144 million. When Masahiro Tanaka's contract with the Yankees becomes official, that number will rise to seven.
It's Tanaka, arriving in America with a blank slate and no track record of big league success, that could influence future prices for starting pitchers.
Ken Rosenthal of Fox Sports explored this topic, citing possible future deals for Boston's Jon Lester, Cleveland's Justin Masterson, Cincinnati's Homer Bailey and Scherzer. Per Rosenthal's column:
"Tanaka, 25, is younger than all of them, but he has yet to throw a pitch in the majors, while the others have established a body of work. Those pitchers can rightly ask, "If that guy can get $155 million, then what am I worth?"
Of the seven richest pitchers in baseball history, Cole Hamels stands out as a solid comparison for Scherzer.
Both reached the end of their service time in their late-20s, became more dominant as the years passed and pitched in big markets. However, Hamels likely sacrificed money by foregoing the open market and re-signing in Philadelphia during his contract year.
Furthermore, found money has entered the pockets of each team since the summer of 2012. According to Wendy Thurm of Fangraphs, around $25 million more will be afforded to each team from national TV revenue from 2014 to 2021.
If Detroit and Scherzer can reach an agreement before next October, Hamels will likely be used as a comparison, but simply offering Scherzer the Cole Hamels contract might not be enough to keep him off the open market.
Last, but certainly not least, is Scherzer's impending 2014 season.
On the surface, his age (30 in July) will likely keep him away from the $200 million threshold that Clayton Kershaw surpassed this offseason.
Yet, another Cy Young-caliber season, increased revenue streams and status as one of the best pitchers in the world could send the market into a tizzy.
In a perfect world, the Tigers would keep Scherzer, pair him atop the rotation with Verlander and Sanchez for the foreseeable future and have the money to re-sign Miguel Cabrera after 2015. With those stars in tow, World Series glory could be in order sooner than later.
Of course, it's not a perfect world. Every dominant start from Scherzer will bring Detroit closer to their goal and deeper into an untenable payroll dilemma.
Your turn to play GM: How would you handle the Max Scherzer dilemma?