WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. -- Early July of 2019 in Cleveland was not the time Max Scherzer wanted to talk about his contract.
Washington had surfaced from its brutish start, but remained six games out of first place when the All-Star break arrived. Scherzer was the team’s lone presence at the All-Star Game in Ohio since Anthony Rendon opted for rest and the voters opted for other players. Scherzer wasn’t going to pitch. Though, he did go to Media Day, where he was asked about the future of his contract. The question annoyed him.
“I’m trying to win a championship,” he said.
Flip to this spring in West Palm Beach. Scherzer has won said championship, shaved another year off his seven-year deal and is entering his age-36 season. Let’s try the question again. Has he thought about or been approached about a contract extension?
“Obviously, there is a time and place to think about that,” Scherzer told NBC Sports Washington. “It’s really [for] the team to come to you to drive those conversations. And, so, for me, I’ll cross that bridge when a team wants to pick up the phone.”
The template to do so is Scherzer’s former teammate, Justin Verlander. He signed a two-year, $66 million extension in March of 2019 on his way into his age-36 season. The Astros approached him in January of last year about a longer deal before it was sealed two months later. The extension kept Verlander from becoming a free agent following the 2019 season. The contract also set a precedent by delivering the highest average annual value in base salary for a pitcher.
“I thought it was very fair compensation, and also the way it affects future players’ contracts in age-37, -38 seasons just helps push the boundary a little bit, which is something that’s important to me,” Verlander said at the time.
In that sense, he did Scherzer a favor.
The Nationals will point to last season’s injuries as reason not to approach Scherzer now. Scherzer made only 27 starts because of a middle back problem. His neck stiffness in the middle of the World Series roiled the entire setup. His swift return from the rigid neck enabled them to start him in Game 7. He says he feels good now, but those issues linger at least mentally and offer easy reasons to kick the can. Never mind he’s averaged 220 innings per season across the prior five years. In order to be paid, he has to prove it over again, continuing his tussle with the aging process.
Scherzer tries to push out thoughts of the future. He doesn’t have a flat answer for how long he will play, or what he wants to do in the next few years when his already firm Hall-of-Fame résumé will become concrete. He’s 308 strikeouts from becoming the 19th pitcher to strikeout 3,000 batters, and likely the last to do so for a long period, if not the last to do so period because pitcher usage has dipped so much. Another Cy Young Award would be his fourth. Just four other pitchers have done that. Those numbers aren’t kicking around inside his mind.
“Ignorance is kind of bliss,” Scherzer said. “Trying to worry about your future and how many years you want to play kind of makes your head go numb. For me, what works is just kind of stay in the moment, don’t worry about everything. Control what you can control. Who knows how everything will turn out over the next few years? But, for me, I feel great, I feel good. Want to continue to keep playing baseball and look forward to what I can do the next few years.”
Maybe, Scherzer will make 32 starts this year. Maybe next spring he will be at a press conference sounding like Verlander did in 2019, when he said he didn’t want to be anywhere else, and he will be charged with keeping it up until he is 38 years old. Maybe it all comes together so he retires in a Washington uniform, then becomes the Nationals’ first representative in Cooperstown. But someone from the organization has to pick up the phone before all that can happen.
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