If you worked for a billionaire family, would you recommend signing Jon Lester or Max Scherzer for the future? If your season depended on it, would you rather have Lester or Scherzer on the mound?
The Cubs and Washington Nationals already answered those questions after the 2014 season, committing $365 million combined to two different aces at two different points in their construction projects, making the free-agent decisions that helped shape this National League Division Series.
Both franchises are pleased with the returns on the investments – and aware of the checkered history for pitchers with nine-figure contracts. But only Lester has looked out from a Grant Park stage at the endless sea of people and announced into the microphone: “How about this s---?”
The Nationals are still waiting for their first ever playoff series win – much less a championship parade down Pennsylvania Avenue in a city where the Senators last won the World Series in 1924.
All those dynamics make Scherzer’s hamstring “tweak” – in the right leg where he pushes off and generates so much power – such an X-factor on Monday in a Game 3 that will leave one team nine innings away from elimination.
“I feel like I’m good to go,” Scherzer said. “Hey, we’re in the playoffs. Every game is a must-win. This is going to be a crazy atmosphere here at Wrigley. I can’t wait to toe the rubber.”
Coming off a fifth straight fifth-place finish, Lester vs. Scherzer wasn’t much of an internal debate in the team’s old Clark Street headquarters.
Lester had formed solid relationships with Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer and the Cubs executives knew which buttons to push during the recruiting pitch after their years together with the Boston Red Sox.
The Cubs already had an in-depth understanding of Lester’s medical history and clubhouse reputation and an appreciation for a smooth left-handed delivery they believed would help him age gracefully.
The Red Sox insulting Lester with a lowball offer in spring training and shipping him to the Oakland A’s at the trade deadline opened his eyes to the world beyond Fenway Park and exempted the Cubs from having to pay a draft pick as compensation on top of the six-year, $155 million contract.
“For us, such a big part of that process was our comfort with Jon as a person, as a competitor, as a teammate,” Hoyer said. “That was sort of our first big commitment in free agency. Without knowing Jon so well, it may have been a different calculus.
“But given that relationship, it just made the most sense to go after the guy we respected and knew as well as you’re going to know any free agent.”
Scherzer is a baseball unicorn, the outlier stretching beyond the preconceived notions about his violent delivery and when he might break down, making at least 30 starts in nine straight seasons and working toward a third Cy Young Award.
The Nationals knew all about Scherzer’s bulldog mentality, because general manager Mike Rizzo had overseen scouting when the Arizona Diamondbacks made him the No. 11 overall pick in the 2006 draft. Super-agent Scott Boras – who represents Scherzer and several other high-profile Nationals – also has an unusually close relationship with principal owner Ted Lerner.
Scherzer believes he can will himself through 100 pitches and overpower a Cubs lineup that outside of Kris Bryant and Anthony Rizzo is 5-for-44 with one RBI and 15 strikeouts through two playoff games against Washington.
“The thing I admire the most about Scherzer is he’s constantly evolving, improving pitches, developing pitches,” Hoyer said. “The best guys in any sport continue to get better and better each season.
“Jordan evolved his game and ended up with the fadeaway. In every sport, you think of different examples of a guy who’s really willing to make changes. And I think Scherzer is that guy.
“Every time he starts, you watch him compete and you feel like this is a guy who lays it all out there every single time.”
Scherzer is also 33 years old and guaranteed four more seasons on a $210 million megadeal that contains a significant amount of deferred money. It may not be now or never for the Nationals, but the window won’t stay open forever, and you never know if you will ever have a better opportunity.
“In this day and age, there’s not much that guys don’t hear about,” Lester said, “with social media and MLB Network and ESPN and all this other stuff. Yeah, I’m sure it was in our heads. We all knew about it. It’s hard to run away from it.
“The guys that signed here – that was the reason why we signed here – to break that curse and win a World Series for the city of Chicago.
“On their side, I don’t know if it’s in their head. I know for us, every day, you heard about a goat or you heard about Bartman or you heard about a black cat or 1908 or whatever.”
The questions won’t stop until the Nationals deliver in October – and it’s hard to see that happening if a “tweak” compromises everything that turns Scherzer into Mad Max.
“You’ve got to eliminate that stuff and go out and play the game,” Lester said. “The game does not change. In the postseason, yeah, it probably speeds up. (But) once you step on that rubber, it’s still 60 feet, 6 inches. You still have to execute a pitch. You still have to have good at-bats and catch the ball.
“That’s kind of how I’ve always looked at it. And you try to eliminate the goats and all that other stuff.”