When the Nationals inked Max Scherzer to a seven-year, $210 million deal ahead of the 2015 season, an ESPN poll of baseball executives voted it the worst free agent signing of the winter.
“One of the execs quoted earlier called this one ‘a Bobby Bonilla joke waiting to happen.’ With all due respect to Bonilla, who will be raking in nearly $1.2 million a year from the Mets until he's 72 years old, Scherzer still has him beat. He'll get $15 million a year -- seriously, $15 million -- through the year 2028.”
Five seasons into that deal, it now looks like one of the greatest free agent signings in MLB history. The Nationals have enjoyed two Cy Young-winning seasons out of Scherzer. And in the three seasons he didn’t win a Cy Young, he threw a pair of no-hitters (2015), struck out 300 batters (2018) and put together a playoff run in which he went 3-0 with a 2.40 ERA and helped win a World Series (2019).
Meanwhile, the New York Mets are still paying Bonilla for a 60-game stint in 1999 that saw him hit .160 with four home runs. On Wednesday, that yearly payment of $1,193,248 went through, just as it will every July 1 until 2035.
Scherzer has proved that he’s no Bonilla, with the attention now directed toward his next contract. The right-hander will be a free agent after the 2021 season, giving the Nationals just over 15 months to use their exclusive negotiating window before Scherzer hits the open market at 37 years old. In February, Scherzer indicated that the two sides had yet to begin talking about his future in D.C.
“It’s really [for] the team to come to you to drive those conversations,” Scherzer told NBC Sports Washington’s Todd Dybas. “For me, I’ll cross that bridge when a team wants to pick up the phone.”
MLB Network Radio analyst Steve Phillips joined Tuesday’s episode of NBC Sports Washington’s Nationals Talk podcast to discuss what Scherzer’s next deal might look like. He compared the situation to the ones that other recent teams have faced with their aging starters headed to Cooperstown.
“I think they should do like the Astros did with Justin Verlander or like what the Dodgers did with Clayton Kershaw,” Phillips said. “You do a two-year deal or a three-year deal and sign him up, lock him up. If you want to wait until the end of the year, this year, see how health-wise he is going into the next season, and if you can sign him to a two-year extension—I’d rather do that than three—but I would absolutely go down that road with Scherzer.”
The Houston Astros signed Verlander to a two-year, $66 million extension in May 2019, when he was set to be a 37-year-old free agent after the season. When Kershaw faced the decision of whether to opt out of his contract with the Los Angeles Dodgers after the 2018 season, he instead signed an extension for three years and $93 million. Kershaw was 30 years old at the time of the deal.
Up until last season, Scherzer was one of the league premiere workhorse pitchers. He made at least 30 starts every year from 2009 through 2018, eclipsing 200 innings each season from 2013 on. However, injuries finally struck in 2019. He made two trips to the injured list with back and rhomboid strains before neck spasms forced him to miss Game 5 of the World Series—only for him to take a cortisone shot and return to the mound for Game 7.
Scherzer maintained both at the Nationals’ annual WinterFest event in January and throughout spring training that he was completely healthy and ready for the 2020 season. Even though he pitched deep into October, the extended layoff caused by the coronavirus pandemic should ensure Scherzer is just as well-rested as any other pitcher once the 60-game campaign begins July 23-24.
The Nationals signed Stephen Strasburg to a seven-year, $245 million deal this offseason and are only one year into the six-year, $140 million contract they signed with Patrick Corbin, so they are assured that at least two of their aces will still be in D.C. beyond 2021. As for Scherzer, their willingness to extended him will depend on how comfortable they feel about his health moving forward.
“You know he’s gonna work hard to stay healthy and prepared,” Phillips said. “You know he cares, you know he’s a great teammate, you know he can pitch in your market, you know he’s competitive and he’ll do everything he can to be on the field and give you the most. Health-wise, you don’t know. But you know he’s going to give you 100 percent of whatever percentage he has available to him every single time he takes the mound.”
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