Just one year. That is all that remains on Max Scherzer’s seven-year, $210 million contract, one of the most fulfilling long-term contracts in Major League Baseball.
Signing any pitcher to such a term is loaded with risk. Breakdown or failure can cause fluctuations, but the money is always assured. Multiple teams refused to give Scherzer the length of contract he wanted when a free agent in 2014. The Nationals committed in late January of 2015. It has paid off since.
Now, Scherzer enters what could be his final winter and final season in Washington. He is 36 years old, 2020 -- by his sky-high standard -- was a middling season and his contractual future is to be determined. The Nationals are a pitching-first organization which will need another substantive starter after Scherzer leaves. So, will he, in essence, replace himself?
“We haven’t had any substantive conversations about an extension for Max -- to my knowledge,” Mike Rizzo said Tuesday. “That could be on the ownership level. To my knowledge, it hasn’t happened yet. When we get to spring training, when we get to see each other each and every day, that sometimes changes. But we will keep all our options open. Max is a Hall of Fame pitcher that has earned that respect.”
Scherzer finished with a 3.74 ERA, 3.46 FIP, 12.3 strikeouts per innings and 1.381 WHIP last season. The last number was a curiosity. Scherzer’s walk rate climbed in 2020 to reach its highest point since 2010, back when he was just starting his major-league journey. Walks were his main issue in 2020.
“I think his stuff is as good as it’s ever been,” Rizzo said. “It’s different than it was when we first signed him. It’s way different than when I drafted him in ‘06. He’s a guy that’s a chameleon. He changes as his career moves on. He’s always coming up with a way to beat you. He’s such a competitive person. The velocity was where we wanted it to be with the fastball for the most part last year. And his slider/cutter and curveball, changeup were all good pitches. I think it was a matter of consistency and routine for him while he struggled a little bit.
“The bar is so high for Max that anything but excellence is regarded as a failure. He grinded through a season last year. He was the leader of that team. I think as far as last year, I think he led more than he ever has because he was the voice of the team with these COVID protocols and other things. I think Max...he ages very, very well. His delivery works for him. And he’s such a workaholic type of preparer that I see him being successful for years to come.” The model -- and warning -- about Scherzer’s possible extension is Justin Verlander. He signed a two-year, $66 million contract extension at spring training in 2019 when 36 years old and entering his final year under contract. Verlander had Tommy John surgery Oct. 1 and will miss next season.
For now, both Scherzer and the Nationals are operating in definitives. Scherzer will be back for 2021. They need him to join Stephen Strasburg and Patrick Corbin as an upper-tier pitching trio in order to go anywhere. The rest is much cloudier.