With all of the big changes happening to the Tigers roster lately, it’s clearly a time to look forward in Detroit. The Tigers dumped Fister and Fielder and haven’t replaced them with shiny new upgrades, so in theory, it looks like the Tigers are loading up to sign extensions with some of their core pieces. Miguel Cabrera is due a new deal after 2015, along with several others, but Max Scherzer is the immediate concern, as he will become a free agent after the 2014 season. The question now is if the Tigers should look to lock him up.
I’ll start by saying that Scherzer is represented by Scott Boras, who almost never signs extensions, and especially doesn’t do it this close to free agency. This post isn’t really trying to determine if the Tigers will lock him up, it’s more a question if they should. Scherzer will hit the market entering his age 30 season and should enter as the best pitcher on the market as long as Kershaw signs a massive extension in LA. Should they sign a big deal with Max when he hits the market?
Here are his numbers in five seasons as a full time starter, four of which came with the Tigers. He’ll likely have another good season to his name in 2014 and should enter the free agent market as one of the best pitchers in the game. He’s been durable, but not a workhorse and is trending in the right direction across the board. His strikeouts are up, his walks are down. His ERA, FIP, and xFIP are down. He’s been worth more WAR in each of the last two seasons.
I’ve written extensively about Scherzer’s improved mechanics and new curveball that have allowed him to make the leap from solid starter into superstar. I’ve also written about how much I enjoy cheering for the heterochromatic and cerebral ace. Scherzer is great, you heard it here first.
The question remains, how much will it cost to keep him and should the Tigers pony up the dough?
Let’s assume he regresses a little bit to the mean and enters free agency after a solid 5 win season. He’ll have three or four great years and two or three solid ones to his name. He’ll be 30, looking for a 6 or 7 year deal. Zack Greinke got 6 years and $147 million. Greinke signed that deal entering his age 29 season and they aren’t perfect comparisons, but Greinke’s peak and Scherzer’s higher floor make the comparison useful. Cliff Lee was older, but with a higher peak and lower floor than Scherzer when he signed for 5/$120M entering the 2011 season.
With new money flowing into the game, it’s not hard to see basic inflation helping push Schezer’s deal upward. Anibal Sanchez got 5/$80M with a less impressive resume. Let’s call it six years for Scherzer’s deal, just because 7 year deals for pitchers are rare, and usually come as extensions rather than on the open market.
It seems like a $20 million AAV is the floor. At his cheapest, Max is looking like 6/$120, but he’ll be on the market, mostly on his own. Teams will have lots of cash and will be desperate for pitching. Something like 6/$150 seems more realistic, maybe even low depending on how things develop.
More than Greinke, because the market is better. Less than Verlander, Felix, and likely Kershaw, because he isn’t on a Hall of Fame track. That’s a whole lot of cash to spend on one player, especially when you have something like $40+ million tied up in Verlander and Sanchez for the next several seasons.
The Tigers can afford to pay Max from a business sense. They have the resources to run a $130+ million payroll, but the question is really if the Tigers could spend that money more effectively. You’d expect something like 20 wins from Scherzer over his age 30-35 seasons based on the basic aging models, and so somewhere between 15 and 25 is a safe bet. For 15 wins, you’re paying $10 million per win. For 25, you’re paying $6 million per win. One of those is an excellent wager, one is a bad one. The Tigers can spend $150 million more effectively if Scherzer is going to age poorly. The gamble we’re talking about is better on Max Scherzer to hold onto his value into his mid thirties.
I’m not sure that’s a gamble I want to make. Let’s look back over the last ten seasons. Here are the best ten qualifying starters at age 33, age 34, and age 35 during that time span.
The reality is that pitchers aged 33-35 have just six seasons of 5.0+ WAR or better over the last ten seasons. In order for Scherzer to hit the top end of our projection, he’s going to need at least two of them. That seems like a tall order. There have been 16 seasons of 4.0+ WAR in that time span. Scherzer would probably need three of them. That too, seems like a tall order for anyone, much less a player who has only recently controlled his wild mechanics.
I have faith that Scherzer can remain effective into his 30s, but I’m just not sure he’s going to be an ace for more than another year or two. What’s even more frightening about this data is that there were 36 qualifying seasons at age 33, 30 at age 34, and 2o at age 35. Staying on the mound gets harder and harder as you get older. In order to be worth a huge contract like this, Scherzer needs to remain great and remain healthy. I’m not sure that’s a bet I want to make. He’ll have surplus value in the early years, but I don’t think he’ll have that much surplus. It’s hard to imagine he ever has a better season than the one we just saw. he’s more of a 4-5 win pitcher than a 7-8 win pitcher like Verlander or Kershaw.
I love Scherzer and would be sad to see him go, but I think the right move is to go for it with Max in 2014 and then let him walk away. The Tigers have Verlander and Sanchez locked up. I think they should extend Porcello – who is both very good, and significantly younger (25 this season). Smyly is has four years left of control. Robbie Ray, presumably, should be ready to contribute at the back end in 2015. Scherzer is a great pitcher, but I don’t think he’ll be good enough for long enough for a huge deal to make sense. That money could be put to better use elsewhere on the team. Heck, they should have extended Fister for 60% of the price.
I supported the Tigers going all in for 2014. They’ve made some weird moves this offseason, but they’re still capable of winning the division and have a team capable of winning in October. They should make one last run with Scherzer and then they should let him walk. It’s been a fun ride, but you can’t let your heart get in the way of the right decision.