- The Washington Times - Monday, January 19, 2015

As a teenager growing up in northwest Washington, Ted Lerner worked as an usher at Griffith Stadium simply so he could watch the local baseball team, the Washington Senators, play their games.

When his family bought the city’s new baseball franchise, the Washington Nationals, in 2006, Lerner said he would do everything in his power to not only build a winner, but make the organization “an international jewel.”

Lerner is now 89 years old, a real estate mogul worth an estimated $4.6 billion, and he’s made his team a Las Vegas favorite to win the World Series with the addition of another expensive, golden arm early Monday morning.

Lerner and the Nationals made a bold and historically expensive move, signing marquee free agent Max Scherzer to a seven-year contract worth $210 million. The deal — which, according to The Associated Press, includes a record $50 million signing bonus — will be the largest ever for a right-handed pitcher.

With the addition of Scherzer, 30, the Nationals will at least temporarily boast one of the most dominant starting rotations in baseball — and possibly one of the best rotations in recent decades. Scherzer is slated to join a group that already includes former No. 1 overall pick Stephen Strasburg, two-time all-star Jordan Zimmermann, Doug Fister and Gio Gonzalez.

In a telephone interview Monday evening, former Mets general manager Steve Phillips stopped short of comparing the Nationals to the Atlanta Braves rotation of the 1990s, which featured three future Hall of Famers. But he did offer his own glowing comparison.

“I think it’s more, to me, like the Mets in the mid-80s — [Dwight] Gooden, [Ron] Darling, [Bob] Ojeda, Sid Fernandez,” said Phillips, who hosts “The Leadoff Spot” on MLB Network Radio. “It’s more like that caliber of staff, which for me is an elite, elite pitching staff.”

Overnight, Scherzer made the Nationals a 6-to-1 favorite to win the World Series, according to online sportsbook Bovada LV. They began the offseason tied at 15-to-2 odds with the Los Angeles Dodgers, who are now listed second at 8-to-1.

Those are welcome odds for Lerner, who has watched the Nationals win a division title and bow out in the first round of the playoffs in two of the past three seasons. The District still has not seen a World Series title since 1924, one year before he was born. And the team’s core group of star players is now getting older, nearing an inevitable turning point for the franchise.

“The window isn’t closed,” shortstop Ian Desmond said after Washington was eliminated by the San Francisco Giants in October. “But it is closing.”

Desmond is one of several key players whose contract with Washington is set to expire in the next few years. He, Fister, Zimmermann and starting center fielder Denard Span will become free agents at the conclusion of the upcoming season. Strasburg, catcher Wilson Ramos and closer Drew Storen will hit the market in 2016.

Those expiring contracts could prompt Nationals general manager Mike Rizzo to make additional moves this offseason, potentially trading away Strasburg, Zimmermann or Fister before they become free agents.

Should the rotation stand pat, however, it could blossom into one of the sport’s best. When asked to place the group in historical context, Major League Baseball’s official historian, John Thorn, said it has a chance to rank among the all-time greats, including the 1905 Philadelphia Athletics, the 1970s Baltimore Orioles, and the aforementioned Braves.

“I prefer not to deal with speculation, which provides a rather cloudy crystal ball,” Thorn wrote in an e-mail Monday. “But I can say that next year’s Nationals could challenge the famous rotations of old.”

Scherzer won the American League Cy Young Award in 2013 and finished 18-5 with a 3.15 earned-run average last season. In seven major league seasons, including two in Arizona and the past five in Detroit, the right-hander has an overall record of 91-50 with a career 3.58 ERA in 1239 1/3 innings.

The winter’s top free agent had been linked to the Nationals for much of the offseason, despite the team’s surplus of starting pitching at all levels of the organization. Rizzo was the vice president of scouting in Arizona when the Diamondbacks drafted Scherzer with the 11th overall pick in 2006. Scherzer’s agent, Scott Boras, also represents franchise staples Bryce Harper, Jayson Werth, Anthony Rendon and Strasburg, among others.

Boras is known for negotiating contracts with a team’s owners rather than its general manager, and that likely was the case with Scherzer. In a group interview with reporters at the winter meetings last month, Boras said lengthy, expensive contracts, such as the one he hoped Scherzer would receive, are “ownership decisions.”

“They affect whether a team is a championship-caliber team, they affect attendance, they affect media rights, they affect the value of the franchise,” Boras said then. “These are widely impactful decisions.”

According to a report by FoxSports.com, half of Scherzer’s salary will be deferred until the conclusion of the deal, thereby paying him $15 million annually through 2028. At $210 million, it is the second-highest contract for a pitcher in major league history. Left-hander Clayton Kershaw agreed to a seven-year, $215 million extension with the Dodgers last year.

Scherzer will make $66 million more than the reported $144 million he was offered by the Tigers a little less than a year ago. He will also earn $55 million more than Jon Lester, who signed a six-year, $155 million contract with the Chicago Cubs last month.

Rizzo has traditionally been critical of lucrative long-term contracts for pitchers, but Scherzer was apparently an exception to the rule. He is scheduled to undergo a physical Tuesday, according to the Associated Press, and could be introduced as early as Wednesday.

With a star-studded rotation now in place, the Nationals are in prime position to not only win division titles, as they have in recent years, but also win the only title that matters.

“Even if they do make a trade for a pitcher, trade one away, I think they still might end up being the odds-on favorite to win,” Phillips said. “But you’ve got to go out and play.”

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