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Much to his pleasure, Max Scherzer ‘probable’ to start this week

Much to his pleasure, Max Scherzer ‘probable’ to start this week

WASHINGTON -- If you ask Max Scherzer, he is ready. Which is not an upgrade from where he was earlier in the week.

Scherzer felt well again Sunday when he woke up following his second simulation game of the week. His workload increased Saturday, his comfort remained the same and Sunday his body told him he is ready to pitch in a game for the first time since July 25. Davey Martinez agreed -- for the most part. He said Scherzer is “probable” to start Thursday in Pittsburgh.

“I feel good,” Scherzer said. “Kinda do my normal little tests, move my arm and go through the throwing motion, so I feel good. I’m basically sore today the way I should be sore, given that and all the treatment we did yesterday and throwing a sim game. Like everything feels right where it should be. There’s no extra soreness other than what I anticipated. To me, that’s right on par.”

Scherzer remains irritated he was instructed to throw a second simulation game. He understands why. It just was not his personal preference. Part of the reason is in the title of the act. “Simulation” is not reality. For instance, he warned Gerardo Parra a slider was coming in the first simulation game. “Watch your foot,” Scherzer told him out of concern for possible injury. Pitchers are not truly pitching inside during simulations because of that worry. Players could be found to stand in the box without concern of injury. However, they couldn’t competently handle a hall-of-fame pitcher. So, that’s a false test, too. Only being in a game tells the truth.

But this is what Scherzer had to deal with because of the organization managed his return slowly. They focused on the future -- both this season and beyond. Scherzer is much more concerned about the now because, in his view, his rhomboid strain is not a significant injury.

“The long-term health, that’s not even part of the equation,” Scherzer said. “We all know that’s going to be good because we’re dealing with a muscle strain. Every other structure within the back, shoulder, you name it – nothing at play here. It’s literally dealing with the muscle strain and getting through it.”

Knowing this is not a long-term injury has keyed Scherzer’s frustration with the process. He’s felt close, then ready, really close, and again ready throughout the recovery. He’s being teased by the thing he wants to do most: get back on the mound in a real game. 

“Honestly, the toughest part about this whole thing is I feel like the carrot’s right in front of my face,” Scherzer said. “That it’s such day to day that any day it could turn and you always wake up every single day thinking today’s the day that you’re going to wake up and not feel anything and you’re going to go out there and you’re going to throw it and you’re going to feel no pain whatsoever. And you go off running because it’s not a serious injury. That’s been the most frustrating part. 

“If I knew that was going to be however long this is going to take – if I was dealing with, say, a more significant injury where they say, ‘You’re not going to feel good in six weeks’ – all right, you got it. You can easily mentally check out for six weeks knowing I’m not going to be able to throw a ball in six weeks and you can build your rehab around that. That hasn’t been the case. It’s really been day to day: ‘Hey, you might be feeling good here in two days.’ That’s really been the prognosis I’ve gotten from the doctors and everybody about what I’m dealing with. 

“So for me, that’s really been the hardest part mentally. I feel like at any point in time I could be ready to get back out there and at any day everybody’s expecting that this could turn. For me, when you have that carrot right in front of your face and you want to be helping your team, that’s what’s been the most frustrating part for me mentally.”

A bullpen session Monday should be next. After that, a final step to diffuse all of Scherzer’s irritation, his competition-based combat with Martinez and the organization and exasperation with a muscle strain which derailed him for a month can come: pitch one.

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Nationals owner Mark Lerner says team can’t afford Stephen Strasburg and Anthony Rendon

Nationals owner Mark Lerner says team can’t afford Stephen Strasburg and Anthony Rendon

The prime question as soon as Stephen Strasburg opted out of his contract was this: Could the Nationals afford to bring back Strasburg and Anthony Rendon? According to managing principal owner Mark Lerner, the answer is no. 

“We really can only afford to have one of those two guys,” Lerner told Donald Dell in an exclusive interview. “They’re huge numbers. We already have a really large payroll to begin with.”

Lerner’s public stance suggesting Strasburg and Rendon is an either-or proposition for the defending World Series champions is new. Is it surprising? Not necessarily. Lerner could flatly state the organization is going to find a way to pay both. However, that’s poor negotiating. Being in between serves multiple needs: It keeps the door open on each player; it stirs the market without roiling it; it prepares fans for an outcome they don’t prefer.

Lerner has not hesitated to comment on pending and enormous free agent situations since becoming the more outward face of the team’s ownership group. His father, founding principal owner Ted Lerner, has stepped back, though remains the patriarchal voice on large expenditures. Here, like last year, Mark Lerner has answered early December questions about free agency with eyebrow-raising candor. His declaration about Strasburg and Rendon comes almost a year-to-the-day after he said about Bryce Harper, “I don’t really expect him to come back at this point. I think they’ve decided to move on.”

An owner talking with a blend of tactfulness and openness -- when asked a direct question by an interviewer -- drew irritation from Harper’s agent, Scott Boras. Boras also represents Rendon and Strasburg. Hearing an owner speak in a way which counters possible price increases by reducing prospective market competition won’t make any agent happy. It happened here.

So, is there a path for the Nationals to pay both players? Of course. But, it’s a matter of how. In Lerner’s view, whether both players return is up to them, not the organization.

“We’re pursuing them, we’re pursuing other free agents in case they decided to go elsewhere,” Lerner said in the interview with Dell. “Again, it’s not up to us. We can give them a great offer -- which we’ve done to both of those players. They’re great people. We’d be delighted if they stay. But it’s not up to us, it’s up to them. That’s why they call it free agency.”

Important to note: Lerner said the organization cannot afford both, then said it’s up to the players -- not ownership -- whether the players return. The suggestion is if they take lower deals, which both sides know they won’t, they could come back, which in fact would make the players solely responsible for deciding the process. That’s now how free agency works, which everyone involved here understands. 

Lerner could process the offseason in Steinbrennerian fashion. Pay, pay, pay. He won’t. It’s not how the family runs the team. They operate more as well-heeled pragmatists. 

Payroll is consistently high. Washington has been in the top seven four of the last five seasons. Twice, it has reached the No. 5 spot in team payroll. The Nationals gave Max Scherzer the years and total other teams would not. The same happened for Patrick Corbin last offseason.

However, the team also took extensive measures to dip back under the competitive balance tax threshold in 2019 in order to avoid financial and draft pick penalties. It is also already driving down next season’s payroll by renegotiating with Yan Gomes (declined $9 million option; re-signed for two years and $10 million) and reworking Ryan Zimmerman’s contract (declined $18 million option; likely re-signing for around a third of that).

Costs outside of the two big-ticket items of third base and an upper-tier starter should be moderate. The bullpen needs help. Relievers are not bank-breakers. Second base could well consist of a veteran and rookie Carter Kieboom. Those spots influence the immediate math and save money.

Looming are the contracts of Trea Turner (free agent in 2023; also receiving a raise this season), Juan Soto and Victor Robles (free agents in 2025). Though that trio is egregiously outperforming their contracts while wading through MLB’s oppressive early career salary scale, which means opportunity exists now to spend because of emphatic savings via those three players.

Lerner also suggested the free agency process is generally misunderstood outside of baseball circles.

“They think you’re really back there printing money and it’s whoever goes to the highest bidder,” Lerner said. “It’s not that way at all. You give these fellas -- there’s a negotiation that goes on, but...We’ve been pretty successful in free agency over time. You’re not going to get everybody. Certain players may want to go home, closer to where their home is. You never know the reason why people move on. But, we’ve been very successful. Probably one of the most successful teams in free agency the last 10 years. We’re very proud of our record. But, again, I think people have to realize, it’s not all up to us.” 

It nearly can be. The money can be level or more. A public emphasis could be put on the organization’s desperation to bring back two homegrown, upper-tier players at distinct positions of need. No, teams can’t control everything with just cash (as Zack Wheeler recently demonstrated by taking less money to sign with Philadelphia). However, if the organization contends it owns the environmental tiebreakers -- which is a stance the Nationals hold with both players -- then it does become a matter of money and whether it’s found. In this case, the owner says it won’t be. 

See more of the interview on the next episode of The Donald Dell Interview, which debuts December 17 at 7 PM on NBC Sports Washington.
 

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Anthony Rendon's best options and the chances he returns to the Nationals

Anthony Rendon's best options and the chances he returns to the Nationals

Discussions and speculation surrounding how the Nationals will look on Opening Day of their first World Series title defense begin and end with free agents Stephen Strasburg and Anthony Rendon. 

Considered two of the top three players available along with Astros pitcher Gerrit Cole, Rendon and Strasburg will both command massive paydays wherever they decide to sign. 

To this point, reports have suggested a marriage between Strasburg and the Nationals could happen as soon as the start of the winter meetings. 

But what about Rendon? Jesse Daugherty of the Washington Post and Jamal Collier of MLB.com joined Todd Dybas on the Nationals Talk Podcast to break down his best options and the level of interest he could have in returning to DC. 

"I think the one most intriguing option for me that seems to make sense is that Justin Turner has said he'll move off third [base] for LA [Dodgers] and the Dodgers are known to offer low-year, high AAV deals which is something that probably seems attractive to Rendon, who has told us many a time he'd like to retire by 35," Daugherty said. 

If we can take Rendon's word on retiring at 35, this contract may be his last. One major hurdle for him could be the depth at third base across the league, especially on contending teams. 

"Most teams don't need [a third baseman]," Daugherty said. "The Phillies need one, the Braves need one, I guess the Dodgers need one if Turner's willing to move, but [the third base market] really is hard for me to gauge."

Meanwhile, Collier speculates that a natural fit for Rendon would be his home-town team. 

"A team that potentially could be a player for Rendon and one that makes a lot of sense is Texas [Rangers]," Collier said. "Obviously the home state, coming into a new ballpark, they should have money to spend, and I think it's a place that he would want to play at."

Every player wants to get paid, but there are often intangible factors that convince them to take a discount. Whether it's comfortability, saving your owner money to keep a contender together or playing close to home, not every player is won over by a huge contract offer. 

While that may be the case with Strasburg, it doesn't appear Rendon puts as much stock in those things. 

"All those things we said about Strasburg in the comfort and the idea that he likes it [in Washington], I think those things are also true for Rendon," Collier said. "I think if all things were equal, I think the Nats would hold some sort of tiebreaker over most teams. The comfort of DC is probably in his factors but probably won't weigh as heavily as it will with Strasburg. 

"The money has to be equal if the Nats are going to be there," Collier said. 

So no matter how much the Nationals may want to bring both Rendon and Strasburg back for a team-friendly price, they'll have to play by the same rules as everyone else. 

If they don't want to pay up for Rendon, their options to replace him are notably slim. 

"Someone is going to throw a lot of money to Rendon," Collier said. "He’s been a 5, 6 win player per season and probably will be for the next few years. One of the best players in baseball is going to get some play, but not sure where."

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