The ripples from Max Scherzer’s seven-year, $210 million deal with the Nationals will spread well beyond Wednesday’s perfunctory press conference in Washington.
The immediate fallout will center on whether the Nationals might now deal from their surplus of top starters — Jordan Zimmermann, Doug Fister, or even Stephen Strasburg. But the consequences run even deeper.
Throughout the offseason, there have been suggestions that teams were waiting out this impressive class of available pitchers — with Scherzer, Jon Lester, and James Shields available via free agency — and acquiring pitchers for the shorter term before diving into what could be an even deeper free agent pool next winter.
The names that could reach the open market next winter are striking. David Price, Johnny Cueto, Zimmermann, Zack Greinke (who has an opt-out clause in his six-year, $147 million deal), and Jeff Samardzija headline what could be one of the best starting pitching free agent classes ever.
Perhaps, some thought earlier this winter, the potential for a sudden supply of starting pitching could dampen the market for free agent pitchers next winter.
Scherzer’s contract serves as a reminder of the folly of that thinking.
“Death, taxes, and escalating salaries,” texted one major league executive in the aftermath of the Scherzer deal.
Consider: Lester secured the largest average guarantee ever landed on a multiyear deal by a free agent: $25.83 million for his six years with the Cubs. Then Scherzer’s $30 million a year in absolute dollars blew past that. (There are some contractual complexities — a record $50 million signing bonus, $105 million in deferrals that will be paid in the seven years after the conclusion of the contract.)
The lofty heights at which Lester and Scherzer reset the bar suggest that the idea of a depressed or even moderated market for next year’s starters — assuming they remain healthy and perform to their career standards — is unlikely to materialize.
Price (a career 86-51 with a 3.21 ERA, 8.5 K/9, and 2.4 BB/9) will earn $19.75 million in his final season before reaching free agency, 27 percent more than what Scherzer (91-50, 3.58, 9.6 K/9, 2.8 BB/9) earned last year in his final year of arbitration eligibility. He seems likely to follow Scherzer over the $200 million hurdle in free agency.
A National League evaluator suggested that Cueto and Zimmermann seem likely to get something along the lines of what Lester got. With a good year, that evaluator suggested, Samardzija (who has a more uneven track record) could see a $100 million or even a $125 million payday.
If this is the case, the Red Sox seem unlikely to shop for elite free agent starting pitching anytime soon. The team defined its endpoint with Lester at $135 million, and he was an option that was, in many ways, favorable to Boston in an apples-to-apples comparison with Scherzer based on familiarity, track record, and the absence of a draft pick attached to him. That is $20 million short of where the Cubs went with him and $75 million away from where Scherzer’s market went.
Given that Price is likely to command riches similar to Scherzer’s, it’s hard to imagine the Sox extending themselves to have a realistic shot at the lefthander.
Likewise, if Cueto and Zimmermann are in line for the kind of payday that Lester received, it’s difficult to envision the Sox reaching the conclusion that they represent better investments than Lester.
The exception could be Strasburg, given that he’ll be coming off his age 27 season when he arrives at free agency after 2016, but if he sustains his performance, his future contract could make Scherzer’s look pedestrian by comparison.
So what do those potential market dynamics mean for the Red Sox? Maybe a great deal. Maybe very little.
In all likelihood, one avenue — the free agent path — is unavailable, or at least unlikely to be traveled by the Sox. Of course, that’s hardly anything new. Aside from the five-year, $82.5 million deal to which they gave John Lackey, the Sox have largely sidestepped the free agent market for starting pitchers unless looking for a complementary piece such as Ryan Dempster.
For a team that balks at the risk assumed by massive free agent contracts for pitchers, the best means to acquire an ace remain the ones they have employed for the last 30 years: trade for one (Pedro Martinez, Curt Schilling, Josh Beckett), develop one (Lester, Roger Clemens), or spend a lot of money hoping to land a future one (Daisuke Matsuzaka).
As for next year’s group of free agent options? That, quite likely, has been Priced out