For the first time in seven years, Max Scherzer this week will make a start for a team other than the Nationals.
The club traded Scherzer along with shortstop Trea Turner to the Los Angeles Dodgers on Friday with only two months left in the $210 million deal he signed ahead of the 2015 season. Since signing that contract, Scherzer has put together the best seven-year run by a pitcher the Nationals have ever seen, winning a pair of Cy Young awards and leading the franchise to its first World Series title in 2019.
“I don’t want to look at this as a negative thing,” Scherzer said of the Nationals selling at the deadline. “I’d rather look at this as a positive thing. Look, I signed a seven-year deal here and won a World Series. The first thing I said when I signed was, ‘I’m here to win.’ And we won. We won a World Series so that’s a lifelong dream come true and something that I’ll always be so proud of.”
What made Scherzer such a rare commodity for the Nationals, however, was the fact that he lived up to his mega-contract — a feat rarer than the casual fan might expect. Scherzer is one of only 12 players (and four pitchers) in MLB history to score a deal worth $200+ million in free agency. Not only is he the only such pitcher to win a Cy Young over the lifetime of his contract, he and David Price are the only players to win a World Series with the club that signed them.
But let’s put money aside. Scherzer’s contract stacks up with baseball’s greatest free agent deals regardless of how much the player was paid. He accrued 36.9 fWAR across seven seasons in D.C., which stands as the highest total among any pitcher in baseball over that span.
Thanks to a handy database compiled by MLB.com’s Mike Petriello last winter, we know that only three players in MLB history have accrued more WAR over the lifetime of a free-agent deal than Scherzer: Barry Bonds (49.6 over six years), Randy Johnson (39.7 over four) and Greg Maddux (39 over five). Johnson’s contract stands out because he won a Cy Young in all four years of the deal. Maddux won three and, like Johnson, helped clinch a World Series title. Bonds took MVP honors his first year and never finished a season with an OPS below 1.000.
Given that Scherzer was limited to just 12 starts in 2020 due to the pandemic-shortened season and he won’t have the chance to finish out the final year of his contract with the Nationals after being traded, he falls short of comparing with the likes of Johnson and Maddux when stacking up their pure on-field production.
However, we’re talking about the best free agent contracts, not individual players. The Nationals used the final two months of that contract to acquire top prospects Keibert Ruiz and Josiah Gray as well as outfielder Donovan Casey and right-handed pitcher Gerardo Carrillo from the Dodgers, all of whom will be under team control for at least the next half-decade. While it’s impossible to say for sure just how good of players each of those prospects will be, their production has to be factored in when comparing Scherzer’s contract to the best free agent deals of all time.
As a result, it’s going to be a few years before this debate can truly be settled. For now, the Nationals can take solace that they received six-and-a-half fabulous years out of a future Hall of Famer in Scherzer. Now that they’ve flipped him for prospects, the decision to sign him to that $210 million deal will continue to pay dividends for years to come.