Raise your hand if you thought American League Cy Young Award winner Max Scherzer was crazy when he turned down a six-year, $144 million offer from the Tigers.
It’s risky because at any given moment, a pitcher could clutch his elbow or shoulder and his earning power decreases immediately. Especially during a free agent year. But Scherzer was willing to take that risk for a bigger payday. You would think that coming off a Cy Young season his earning power would be at its maximum, but Scherzer is backing up his 2013 of 21-3 with a 2.90 ERA with another fine season (4-1, 1.72, with 60 strikeouts in seven starts). Will someone pay him more than $144 million over six years?
Scherzer, 29, isn’t the only pitcher who could cash in.
Among the best of the free agents-to-be are Boston’s Jon Lester, Kansas City’s James Shields, and Cleveland’s Justin Masterson, and among the trade possibilities are Tampa Bay’s David Price and the Cubs’ Jeff Samardzija.
“Lester is the most appealing,” said one National League general manager. “He’s lefthanded, a bulldog, big-game experience, and just 30. Will he get six or seven years? I’d say he will.”
Lester was offered $70 million over four years by the Red Sox, who have changed their pay scale in the last two years. If they believe their young starters will become front-of-the-rotation guys, their offer to Lester may not rise enough to satisfy the lefthander.
The Yankees, Blue Jays, Orioles, Phillies, Mariners, and Rangers could all dive in. Lester will have no shortage of suitors if he can’t negotiate a deal with the Red Sox.
As Yankees GM Brian Cashman said when he went after Masahiro Tanaka, you never want to give out that kind of money but top starters are so hard to find that they come at a premium price and it’s one you have to pay.
Agent Alan Nero, who negotiated Felix Hernandez’s seven-year, $175 million deal with the Mariners, understands the risks for pitchers.
“You have to do your research and feel your research on the player prevails,” Nero said. “You have to define a player’s proper value.
“The value of these contracts is based on what the player has done in the past because there’s no way you can foresee the future. You hope the player lives up to the contract or outperforms it. I remember years ago when I did Jim Rice’s contract. He was paid (five years, $10 million) based on his past performance. Jim’s performance declined during the contract, and of course it would as he got older, but the contract was based on what he had done.”
Certainly, teams in the market for a pitcher prefer those 30 or younger. Price falls into that category. But there’s also concern that his velocity has gone down even at age 28 and signing him to a mega deal might cause some anxiety.
If the Rays are out of contention by the trading deadline, all signs are that Price could become available. The team trading for him would have to unload three top young players and then try to sign Price long term.
Price, 3-3 with a 4.53 ERA, can become a free agent after the 2015 season. One supposes a team could carry him this year and next and then let him go into free agency if Price didn’t perform well.
Samardzija, 0-3 with a 1.62 ERA, is also an interesting case. Theo Epstein has maintained that the Cubs’ preference is to sign him long term. So far, that hasn’t happened. This is a tough one for Epstein, who knows he needs to build up his pitching, and in order to do that he’d love to have Samardzija be the face of the staff.
The Blue Jays have scouted the Cubs extensively and vice versa, so there’s something there. The Jays need to bolster their pitching depth and need a dependable starter other than Mark Buehrle if they feel they’ll stay in the race.
Masterson, who is 2-1 with a 3.86 ERA in eight starts, may become the cheapest option in free agency. He’s a solid starter and a debatable No. 1, and he continues to have problems against lefthanded batters (.305 with a .798 OPS against him). But he is only 29.
Shields, 32, is the oldest of the group but he’s a top-of-the-rotation starter. He’s 4-3 with a 2.70 ERA in eight starts. The Royals haven’t been of the mind to re-sign Shields, just as they weren’t with Ervin Santana.
Shields, who is 13-1 with a 1.76 ERA in his last 16 road starts, could be another trade deadline candidate should the Royals not live up to expectations and fall out of the AL Central race.
“He’s an attractive pitcher for a team that’s not only contending but can win it all. He’s very dependable. He’s not awed by any situation,” said one AL GM.
As Nero pointed out, every player has preferences for where he wants to play and for how much. Every pitcher has a risk threshold he’s willing to cross. Each of these pitchers will make his own decision. Forget this notion that the agent will call the shots. Not with that much money at stake.
“The important thing to remember for an agent is we’re here to serve the player and his needs. It’s not about us,” said Nero. “We hope to provide the information and advice for him to make the right choice.”
And when signing or trading for these players, each team has its own threshold, as well. Some teams won’t break the bank, no matter how good the track record is.
Some fans at Fenway are checking out early
To their credit, fans hung in at Fenway Wednesday night to watch the Red Sox defeat the Reds, 4-3. Game time was 2:47. But in other games during that homestand, fans left early. Twice in extra-inning games, with the score tied, the crowd was thin.
Has Boston suddenly become Los Angeles?
Last Sunday, the ballpark was half-empty in a 2-2 game in the 10th. Then on Tuesday, the announced crowd of 36,004 had dwindled to about a quarter of that by the 11th inning.
I asked fans on Twitter if they had attended a game at Fenway in which they left before the eighth inning. Here were some of the reasons given:
@Eric_chet, “Afternoon game, had to work at night. Left after 7. Was already an hour late.”
@szerade, “When you take the commuter rail, there’s a limit on how long you can stay, though usually affects extra-inning games more.”
@rongmvw, “Time. I usually have a three-hour limit.”
@KCEsq, “My friend had ran the marathon the day before and it was 42. He wasn’t feeling it at all.”
@TomMcNulty2, “Yawkey seats, winter weather, drunks.”
@gmvancott, “You don’t want to know.”
@michael3, “Cold, too damn cold.”
@joeyyogi190, “Too late. Need to get up early to get to work.”
@mesomean, “Clay Buchholz was pitching. He’s a human rain delay.”
@myminiexcusrsion, “pace of play . . . games just too long. Win or lose . . . too long.”
@dogfishheadct, “must confess, 38 degrees a little much and the team had no fire against the Orioles.”
@JHick92, “the seats are so uncomfortable it hurts . . . and they were being shut out at the time.”
Apropos of nothing
1. Young players such as George Springer of the Astros and Gregory Polanco, still with the Pirates’ Triple A affiliate in Indianapolis, have turned down multiyear deals. Teams are trying to get future stars signed long term on the cheap. We wonder if the Red Sox will attempt this with Xander Bogaerts (a Scott Boras client).
2. Through the first 505 games this season, there were 243 replay reviews, which took an average of two minutes. Of the 243, 60 were conﬁrmed, 67 stood, 113 were overturned, three were termed “record keeping.”
3. Since 2008, the Rays have used only 21 starting pitchers, fewest in the majors, ahead of the Giants (24). The Orioles have used 45 starting pitchers, most in the majors.
4. Skimming through a couple of good reads: Bill Madden’s “1954” and the Bill Nowlin/Allan Wood collaboration of “Don’t Let Us Win Tonight,” the story of the 2004 Red Sox.
5. Good leadoff men are becoming more valuable as power decreases and manufacturing runs becomes more important. That’s why Jacoby Ellsbury ($153 million), Shin-Soo Choo ($130 million), and Michael Bourn ($48 million) are making big money, a trend that will likely continue.
6. In the field, anyway, Jackie Bradley Jr. reminds Angels third base coach Gary DiSarcina, Bradley’s Triple A manager, of Jim Edmonds.
7. Yogi Berra, who will turn 89 on Monday, has put his six-bedroom, 4,502-square-foot home in Montclair, N.J., on the market with an asking price of $888,000 in honor of his uniform No. 8, which was retired by the Yankees.
8. After the Yankees retire Joe Torre’s No. 6 and Derek Jeter’s No. 2, only “0” will be available in single digits.
Updates on nine
1. Derek Jeter, SS, Yankees — One major league source indicated the Yankees may change their thinking on whether to sign Stephen Drew (owner Hal Steinbrenner had said the Yankees didn’t need Drew) if they find Jeter can’t endure a full season at shortstop. The Yankees, according to the source, don’t want the Red Sox to get a draft pick, so they’d wait at least through the June draft so there would be no compensation.
2. Kurt Suzuki, C, Twins — Some had wondered where Suzuki’s offense went and whether it would ever return to his productive Oakland days. Well, it’s back. Suzuki has been hovering around .300 all season and has taken to the teachings of hitting coach Tom Brunansky, who has preached a Red Sox-like, patient style to the Twins’ hitters. But a bigger reason for Suzuki’s improvement might be just playing more as the No. 1 catcher.
3. Victor Martinez, C/DH, Tigers — The former Red Sox backstop, now 35, has put himself into position for another contract. Martinez’s deal ends after this season, but he’s having a productive season and has become more valuable since Prince Fielder was traded to Texas for Ian Kinsler. Martinez entered Saturday with as many homers (7) as Miguel Cabrera and Fielder combined. He had struck out only five times in 115 at-bats (he also had seven intentional walks) and was hitting well from both sides of the plate. Martinez, like teammate Torii Hunter, who could also become a free agent, has seemingly been reborn as a tough out and punishing hitter. How tough? He recently took a called third strike, for the first time in 597 plate appearances.
4. Kevin Youkilis, 1B, Rakuten Golden Eagles — Not a great start for Youkilis, who was hitting .215 and had played in just 21 of the team’s first 34 games. Youkilis has a homer and 11 RBIs but has back issues that necessitate taking time off. Youkilis’s salary could reach $5 million with incentives. He has indicated in recent media reports that this could be his final year playing. Rakuten teammate Andruw Jones has 11 homers and 24 RBIs. He is hitting only .214 but with a .908 OPS.
5. George Digby, scout, Red Sox — I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention Digby, a wonderful man who was so helpful to this reporter over the years. He was 96 when he died last week. He was responsible for signing Wade Boggs, Mike Greenwell, and Jody Reed. His biggest coup would have been convincing Red Sox management to sign a young center fielder named Willie Mays. Digby’s judgment was impeccable. A scouts’ scout.
6. Francisco Rodriguez, RHP, Brewers — Has there been a closer who has reinvented himself more than K-Rod? He’s on pace for 65 saves after going 14 for 14. The only surprise for Brewers GM Doug Melvin? “That nobody went after him this offseason. People forget he was 10 for 10 for us last year. When we fell out of it we traded he and John Axford. But we knew what he had done for us, so we were fortunate to re-sign him.” Melvin added, “He doesn’t throw 95 anymore. He’s 90-91, but unlike other pitchers who have had a loss of velocity, he has a great curveball and changeup and locates his fastball so well. Not to mention how aggressive he is. He’s really been a mentor to our other relievers.” K-Rod set the major league mark for saves in a season with 62 in 2008, his heyday with the Angels.
7. Juan Francisco, 1B/3B/DH, Blue Jays — Manager John Gibbons is doing everything he can to keep the lefthanded-hitting Francisco in the lineup to take advantage of his power. Francisco has hit five homers and knocked in 12 runs to go with a .292 average in subbing mostly at DH for the injured Adam Lind. With Lind back, Gibbons has been playing Francisco at third while Brett Lawrie has nursed a sore hamstring. But when Lawrie returns, Gibbons is going to have to make some tough choices.
8. Kendrys Morales, DH/1B, free agent — Melvin acknowledged that Morales’s name came up in the Brewers’ first base discussions, but “there are just a pool of players we can’t consider because of the National League-American League dynamic. That’s why I’m hoping we’re all playing by the same set of rules someday. It’s a reason we had to let Corey Hart go because we play 36 day games and it’s tough to come back after a night game.” Everyone knows Morales can hit, but not many are sold on him at first base. Melvin has stuck with his Mark Reynolds/Lyle Overbay platoon and feels Reynolds’s first base defense has improved from last season.
9. Blake Swihart, catcher, Portland — An AL scout is quite enamored with Boston’s Double A talent, raving about second baseman Mookie Betts and shortstop Deven Marrero, in particular. But Swihart has drawn some oohs and aahs. Swihart, a switch-hitter, ran 4.1 down the first base line in a game last week, righthanded. You don’t see that too often with catchers, who are usually much slower.
From the Bill Chuck files — “The back end of the order is helping the Yankees. The 7-8-9 batters are hitting .290, the best in the majors.” . . . Also, “The Yankees’ Dellin Betances leads all relievers with 30 strikeouts in 17.1 innings.” . . . Happy 50th birthday, Jeff Sellers.Nick Cafardo can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @nickcafardo. Material from interviews, wire services, other beat writers, and league and team sources was used in this report.