What Mega-Contract Rejection Means for the Future of Max Scherzer and the Tigers

Jason Catania@@JayCat11MLB Lead WriterMarch 23, 2014

USA Today

When it comes to locking up Max Scherzer, the reigning American League Cy Young Award winner, at least the Detroit Tigers are saying they tried. Just what bearing that will have on the future of Scherzer and the Tigers—as well as Scherzer's future with the Tigers—remains to be seen.

Early Sunday morning, the club's official Twitter account relayed a press release with the latest news regarding what had been, to that point, ongoing negotiations with the 29-year-old right-hander. Both sides indicated they will no longer continue talks now that the season is about to start. Here's the message in full:

The Detroit Tigers have made a substantial, long-term contract extension offer to Max Scherzer that would have placed him among the highest paid pitchers in baseball, and the offer was rejected. As we have reiterated, it has been the organization's intent to extend Max's contract and keep him in a Tigers uniform well beyond the 2014 season. While this offer would have accomplished that, the ballclub's focus remains on the start of the upcoming season, and competing for a World Championship. Moving forward there will be no further in-season negotiation and the organization will refrain from commenting on this matter.

It should be noted that within hours, Scherzer's agent, Scott Boras, responded by saying that things unfolded the other way around, with the team rejecting an offer from Scherzer and Boras' side, according to Jerry Crasnick of ESPN.com:

In this case of he said, they said, in which the exact terms of the proposal—both years and salary—aren't known, Jayson Stark of ESPN.com reports that the offer was "for a slightly lower figure than the $25.7 million per year that Justin Verlander received in the extension he signed last spring, but still would have placed Scherzer among the top six highest-paid pitchers in baseball by average annual value of the deal."

A little less than a year ago, Verlander, the Tigers' other Cy Young-winning right-hander, agreed to what was, at the time, the largest per-season pact ever given to a pitcher ($180M over seven years). It appears that no such deal in the final week before the start of the regular season will come to fruition this time around with Scherzer.

As the ESPN.com report points out, if the offer was, in fact, enough to make Scherzer one of the six highest-paid pitchers in baseball, that would mean no less than $24 million a year, as Clayton Kershaw, Felix Hernandez, Zack Greinke, CC Sabathia, Cliff Lee and Cole Hamels are the only arms other than Verlander with per-season salaries worth that amount or more in average annual value (AAV).

Active Pitcher Contracts with Highest AAV
Clayton KershawDodgers$215 M, 7 yrs$30.7 M
Justin VerlanderTigers$180 M, 7 yrs$25.7 M
Felix HernandezMariners$175 M, 7 yrs$25.0 M
Zack GreinkeDodgers$147 M, 6 yrs$24.5 M
CC SabathiaYankees$122 M, 5 yrs$24.4 M
Cole HamelsPhillies$144 M, 6 yrs$24.0 M
Cliff LeePhillies$120 M, 5 yrs$24.0 M
Cot's Baseball Contracts

FOX Sports scribe Jon Morosi reported the offer between the Tigers and Scherzer to be for six years and $144 million.

"It was a very substantial offer that would have placed [Scherzer] among the highest paid pitchers in the game," general manager Dave Dombrowski reinforced, according to Chris Iott of MLive.com, after news broke that no deal would be struck.

So, what does all this mean for Scherzer and the Tigers?

Certainly, it's Scherzer's prerogative to try to work out a long-term deal now or test the open market to see what offers will roll in. Chances are, as long as he stays healthy and pitches well in 2014, he'll have his pick of contracts that are just as generous, if not more so.

Fact is, while the reported offer's AAV would seem to be more than fair, it's certainly possible that Detroit is only willing to extend Scherzer for, say, four or five years at the most, considering that he will turn 30 this July. Likely, he'll be able to land a six- or seven-year pact once 29 other teams are added to the mix and bidding for his services. It's not a bad fallback plan for Scherzer and Boras.

Still, the message all along from Scherzer has been that he was hoping to remain a Tiger going forward. Just last November, shortly after winning an MLB-high 21 games, the pitcher told MLB Network Radio (h/t ESPN.com) the following:

I got a great thing going in Detroit, we have a great team. I hope they don't mess with it. I want to be a Detroit Tiger and hopefully get back to the playoffs and try to do the ultimate goal and win something for the city of Detroit.

If that is, in fact, the case and the Tigers were the ones to bring the proposal to the table, one could argue that rejecting something in the neighborhood of $25 million per year over multiple years is a funny way of showing it. Particularly when Detroit has been one of the most successful teams in the sport over the past three seasons, each of which ended with a run to either the World Series (2012) or the AL Championship Series (2011, 2013).

For Scherzer, the two biggest risks in not agreeing with the Tigers now are that he could suffer some sort of injury during the season, or he could simply revert to the talented-but-enigmatic hurler he was prior to last year's breakthrough. Remember, this is a guy who, despite 9.3 strikeouts per nine innings, sported a 3.88 ERA and 1.30 WHIP in his first five seasons.

Should either of those scenarios play out, Scherzer could see his price drop by millions per year and tens of millions in total.

As for the Tigers, well, they're all but certain to keep Scherzer through the season, since trading one of their best players seems implausible when they're once again heavy favorites to win the AL Central and make the postseason for the fourth straight time.

That leaves the organization with two options at the end of the 2014 season: try once more to sign Scherzer to the big-money deal he'll be seeking, or let him walk away, recoup the draft-pick compensation and then go after one of the other top free agents.

As in every offseason, there will be talent available—at an ever-escalating price, of course. Among the top names scheduled to reach free agency along with Scherzer who might be fits for the Tigers are pitchers Jon Lester, James Shields and Justin Masterson, as well as shortstop Hanley Ramirez and third basemen Pablo Sandoval and Chase Headley.

That is, if everyone in that group also fails to ink an extension first.

Above all, however, the ultimate takeaway from this development might be this: As close as the Tigers have come to winning it all over the past three seasons, the upcoming one could very well be their best—and last—chance to do so now that the core that has been driving the team in recent years is on the verge of breaking up.

Sure, right-handers Verlander and Anibal Sanchez will be around to hold up the front of the rotation, but Scherzer could be on his way out of Detroit in about nine months, which is when the contracts are up for stalwart designated hitter Victor Martinez and ageless outfielder Torii Hunter, too.

Then there's the next big decision that Dombrowski and co. will have to make: Reigning two-time AL MVP Miguel Cabrera is hurtling toward free agency after the 2015 season, at which point he will be 33 years old and likely still able to command even more money per year than Scherzer either just turned down or asked for (depending on which side you believe).

Depending on what happens to Scherzer, Martinez, Hunter and eventually Cabrera, the Tigers won't necessarily be lacking in talent, but that talent might have a very different look in a year or two.

For now, though, because the Tigers' future just got a little less clear in the wake of this decision, their present just became all the more significant.


To talk baseball or fantasy baseball, check in with me on Twitter: @JayCat11


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