This much has become clear about the Nationals since they emerged from the National League East basement: You never know what they’ll do next.
One year it’s trading for lefty-handed pitcher Gio Gonzalez and giving him a $42 million, five-year extension. Then it’s signing Rafael Soriano to close games for $28 million over two years. That’s followed a year later by trading for righty Doug Fister to create a formidable four-man rotation.
But nothing on general manager Mike Rizzo’s watch — including the jaw-dropping $126 million for free agent Jayson Werth when the team was still a joke — rivals the latest deal, a move that sent shockwaves through MLB on Monday.
Signing position players to $100 million contracts is nothing extraordinary. Such deals are commonplace nowadays, and the Nats have two examples in Werth and Ryan Zimmerman. Baseball has moved far past that point, with several players netting $200 million and Miami outfielder Giancarlo Stanton topping $300.
We never thought Washington owner Ted Lerner would be one to break the bank, but that’s apparently what he did, reportedly signing free-agent Max Scherzer to a seven-year, $210 million contract — the richest ever for a right-handed pitcher.
The Nats already boasted one of baseball’s top staffs with Jordan Zimmermann, Stephen Strasburg, Doug Fister, Gio Gonzalez and Tanner Roark. Adding Scherzer to that mix creates an embarrassment of riches. The 30-year-old is 39-8 with a 3.02 ERA the past two years with Detroit and won the 2013 American League Cy Young award.
Another top-flight starter was the least of Washington’s needs entering this offseason. An everyday second baseman (or third baseman if Anthony Rendon shifts back)? Absolutely. Another bat for the bench? Certainly. More depth for the infield and bullpen? Definitely.
But superior teams don’t concentrate on one season at a time. Like good chess players, management must look two or three moves ahead, calculating how each action might affect what happens next year and the year after that.
The best moves result in a number of attractive options for a wide range of possibilities. In the short-term, Scherzer gives Washington better odds of reaching the World Series for the first time since 1933. Any team that has Gonzalez as the fifth starter can pencil in 80 wins when spring training begins.
By signing off on such a massive deal, Washington’s 89-year-old owner Ted Lerner could be signaling that he’s all-in for 2015, especially since a large portion of Scherzer’s deal reportedly is deferred until 2028. The current roster can be kept intact for the upcoming season without venturing too far past last year’s payroll, a neighborhood Lerner wants to stay in.
But the coup also could portend more pieces being shuffled, keeping Washington in position to contend this year while clearing up questions concerning free-agents-to-be Zimmermann, Fister and shortstop Ian Desmond.
Unfortunately, Scherzer’s presence increases speculation that either Zimmermann, Desmond or fellow homegrown star Strasburg, a free agent in 2017, will be wearing a different uniform before long. It could be before Opening Day or it could at the trade deadline. Fans might be upset — like last week, when bullpen favorite Tyler Clippard was traded — but it’s impossible to keep the whole gang together.
Zimmermann and Desmond have other factors to consider besides happiness in Washington. Zimmermann actually might prefer to play in Milwaukee, closer to family and friends in his hometown. Desmond might feel an obligation to fellow and future shortstops, whose earnings will have some correlation to his next contract.
If staying in D.C. isn’t their No. 1 priority, keeping them without throwing everything else off-kilter can’t be done. Frankly, I’d give Desmond a fair-market deal and forget about a hometown discount. As much as the game revolves around pitching, replacing Desmond in the field, at the plate and at shortstop and in the clubhouse would be exceedingly difficult.
There’s still a lot of risk in giving pitchers nine-figure contracts, deals that almost never work out. But if that’s the going rate for premium arms, at least the Nats have positioned themselves to acquire premium prospects in return for Zimmermann, while keeping an equivalent or superior pitcher in the fold.
There’s still hope that Desmond isn’t a goner. His agent is Scott Boras, who apparently has a direct line to Lerner and a knack for getting him to buy. Boras, who cut Werth’s deal with Lerner and probably did likewise with Scherzer, also represents Strasburg, Rendon and Bryce Harper. If Boras shows the same creativity he demonstrated in Scherzer’s contract, perhaps Desmond can remain as the longest-tenured Nats player.
Otherwise, the team will have to keep things moving.
Either way, there’s no telling what else is up its sleeve.