Max Scherzer will hit free agency for the second time in his career this winter. His last trip to the open market resulted in a seven-year, $210MM deal with the Nationals that turned out to be one of the best free agent investments in recent memory. Scherzer posted a sub-3.00 ERA in five of his six full seasons in Washington, and he’s performing right at peak level in his platform campaign.
The three-time Cy Young award winner has worked 179 1/3 innings across 30 starts, working to a 2.46 ERA/2.89 SIERA. Among the 123 pitchers with 100+ innings, Scherzer ranks 3rd in ERA, 2nd in SIERA, 3rd in strikeout percentage (34.1%), 2nd in strikeout/walk rate differential (28.9 percentage points) and 3rd in swinging strike rate (15.9%).
Scherzer got off to a typically strong start to the year with the Nats, and he’s only taken things to another level after being moved to the Dodgers alongside Trea Turner in a deadline blockbuster. Since landing in Southern California, he’s worked 68 1/3 frames of 1.98 ERA ball, punching out 33.6% of opposing hitters while walking a minuscule 3.0%. Dodgers manager Dave Roberts has already declared Scherzer would get the ball in next week’s single-elimination Wild Card game if the Dodgers can’t track down the Giants in the NL West (via Fabian Ardaya of the Athletic).
That continued dominance should position Scherzer to land the highest average annual value of any player on the market this offseason, with a chance he could threaten Gerrit Cole’s record $36MM AAV for free agent contracts. Scherzer’s age will keep him from coming anywhere close to Cole’s nine-year term, but he’s still in line for a strong commitment over multiple seasons. Scherzer, who turned 37 years old in July, is looking to land a deal that’ll take him into his 40’s, reports Jon Heyman of the MLB Network (Twitter link).
It’d register as a surprise if any club were willing to offer Scherzer an unprecedented deal in the realm of Cole’s record AAV over four seasons. But a three-year pact with a very strong annual salary indeed seems to be attainable. Scherzer’s former teammate, Justin Verlander, signed a two-year, $66MM extension with the Astros in March 2019 that took effect at the start of last season, his age-37 campaign. Verlander, who posted similar numbers in 2018 as Scherzer has this season, didn’t land a third year. But the Astros’ ace signed his deal a full season in advance of free agency without the benefit of an open market bidding. Scherzer, on the other hand, will have multiple suitors as the best-performing impending free agent pitcher.
And while Verlander’s extension has turned out poorly for the Astros — he’s thrown just six innings over the course of the deal because of an ill-timed Tommy John surgery — he still looks like a plausible qualifying offer candidate. Were the Houston front office to make him a QO (which is expected to land in the $19-20MM range), that’d bring Verlander’s potential earnings up to around $85-86MM over the three-season stretch from 2020-22. It’s not a perfectly analogous situation, of course, but it serves to highlight teams’ general willingness to pay a premium for an ace of that caliber, even as those players enter their late-30’s.
One potential wild card in the Scherzer free agent auction will be geography. At this summer’s trade deadline, he reportedly leveraged his no-trade rights to land with a West Coast contender, with the bidding ultimately coming down to the Padres and Dodgers. It’s possible he’ll prioritize staying out west in free agency, although there’s not yet been any indication that’s the case.
He’ll certainly have no shortage of interest, whether from teams in California or anywhere else. The game’s lowest spenders can safely be ruled out, since they’ll never sign a player who’ll command Scherzer’s level of annual salary. Virtually every pitching-needy contender with ample payroll capacity figures to at least be in contact with his representatives at the Boras Corporation. Where the future Hall of Famer winds up will be among the most fascinating storylines of the offseason.