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In seven years with the Nationals, Max Scherzer has consistently been one of the hardest working, most dominant starting pitchers in Major League Baseball, which you'd think would ensure he'd be a Nat the rest of his career.
That's not, however, necessarily true.
Scherzer’s status as a potential trade chip has been one of the hottest topics amongst the national media recently, and it reached a climax during Saturday’s broadcast against the Mets on Fox Sports 1.
Nothing Ken Rosenthal said is incorrect. He even qualified his stance by stating that the Nationals are striving to be playoff contenders and are unlikely to fall far enough out of the picture to strongly consider trading Scherzer. Still, it’s a very possible – and reasonable – outcome at this year’s Trade Deadline.
What This Discussion is Really About
There’s been an outcry amongst the fanbase that the Nationals would never trade away one of their biggest stars if they’re trying – and have a realistic chance – to make the playoffs. That statement in itself is absolutely true, and completely in line with their past tendencies. If they’re still within five (maybe even ten) games of a playoff spot by deadline day, they won’t entertain the idea of a trade.
What may – and should – play a major role in whether a trade is made, however, is how viable he is long term, not just this season – especially if the Nats fall out of playoff contention in 2021.
No decision needs to be made now, nor will it be, but the thought process needs to be ramping up within the organization.
Why Him and Not Others?
There are absolutely other high-quality free agents who contending teams could seek in a trade. Yet, almost none of them are being brought up in these types of trade discussions. Here’s a list (right) of some of the best of the bunch courtesy Spotrac.com:
This doesn’t include players who can opt out of their existing contracts, such as J.D. Martinez or Nick Castellanos, nor Kris Bryant – who mysteriously doesn’t have a projected salary for 2022.
Of course, there are also options who aren’t impending free agents, as well. However, for the sake of this argument, I’ll confine the discussion to only players who are in contract years.
Despite how good Scherzer has been in recent years and throughout his career, there are three concerns worth considering for Scherzer – which is more than any of these other players have:
These three truths may not matter in the long run, but they’re also clear justification as to why Scherzer is viewed as more available than the rest of this group and why the Nats could theoretically feel less inclined to hold onto – and potentially re-sign – him.
The Case for Keeping Him
Scherzer has undeniable present-day value, and he’s still a No. 1 starting pitcher when he’s on the mound. He’s also built up plenty of cachet within the organization and amongst fans. He’s exactly the type of “guy” any team would want to keep, from various perspectives.
That doesn’t even factor in the concept of preserving his legacy as one of only a few Nationals’ folk heroes. He also has a chance to be their first Hall of Fame representative. Is that really worth letting slip away?
If the Nationals are confident that Scherzer can keep them in the mix this season and continue to pitch up to the standards he’s created for himself by the time he reaches – and possibly once he exceeds – 40 years of age, then he’s a keeper. Those are boxes he’ll have to check, though, considering he’ll likely get a multiyear contract in excess of $25 million annually from someone on the open market.
The Case for Letting Him Go
Saying goodbye to players like this is always difficult. However, if circumstances line up the wrong way, it’s better to do so now than in free agency – when Washington would get nothing in return.
Good teams want Max Scherzer, even on a “rental” contract. Anyone who views itself as one frontline starting pitcher away from being a postseason threat will come calling, and won’t be afraid to give up a pretty penny to get him.
These aren’t perfect comparisons, and there are also plenty of others, but the Yankees and Red Sox each acquired at least one upper-level prospect for Aroldis Chapman and Mookie Betts, respectively, ahead of or during the last year of their contracts. Granted, Scherzer is older than them, but he’s arguably more valuable than a closer like Chapman, and he could likely net a big-shot prospect (even if it’s not two, like the Red Sox got). Are the Nats really in a position to pass on a young player like Gleyber Torres or Alex Verdugo simply because they want to keep the band together and stay relevant for a year or two?
The Nats themselves are a strong case for why trading Scherzer might make sense. Remember the hauls they gave up for players like Adam Eaton and Sean Doolittle? The teams on the back-ends of those deals haven’t taken a step back as a result. In fact, the Eaton trade with the White Sox arguably spearheaded one of the best “rebuilds” in the league. If the situation is ripe, why not use that as a lesson learned and turn the tables in the other direction?
Again, none of this matters if Washington is even on the periphery of the playoff hunt. However, if this season turns into the type of year 2020 was, this conversation will only grow louder.
Additionally, even if Scherzer was traded for a solid prospect or two, the Nats should still seek a quality starting pitcher – preferably a top of the rotation talent – in free agency. They could extend their window as playoff contenders by pivoting from Scherzer to another starter who falls within his stratosphere on the mound, but it would be a necessary response to trading away the ace. A team with an injury risk like Stephen Strasburg, a struggling No. 2 like Patrick Corbin, and back-end starters like Joe Ross and Erick Fedde plus Austin Voth, a washed-up veteran, or an ill-prepared prospect won’t contend for a postseason berth. Someone like Noah Syndergaard or Marcus Stroman would go a long way in Washington.
Here and Now
Max Scherzer will take the mound tomorrow night against the Blue Jays. All he can do is keep pitching like he has been, to the tune of a 1.80 ERA through four starts. If they want to ensure he sticks around, it would also behoove the Nationals to give him some run support, and also win some games that he doesn’t pitch in.
The better they perform as a team, the more likely it is that he never plays a home game away from the Nation’s Capital. Until they prove they can be a .500 club, though, stories like this won’t go away.
Nor should they.