The penultimate domino has fallen in MLB free agency, as the Nationals (finally) signed Max Scherzer to a seven-year contract worth more than $180 million. The Scherzer deal shouldn't be surprising -- the Nationals have long had a cushy relationship with Scherzer's agent, Scott Boras, the team appears to be flush with cash, and they have a history of being aggressive on the free agent market. But at the same time, Scherzer-to-the-Nationals is surprising, because while most teams *need* a reliable, effective front-of-the-rotation arm, the Nationals do not.
At least not for 2015.
But any good transaction analysis should start with a level-set on what the team acquiring the free agent should expect to get -- so I'll lead off with that. Scherzer is an ace. I mean, use whatever term you want ... ace, number one starter, rotation anchor, whatever. Over his past six seasons (one with the Diamondbacks, five with the Tigers), he's been dynamite, compiling 25.9 FanGraphs Wins Above Replacement (fWAR), good enough to tie him for seventh among all qualified pitchers. He swung a Cy Young Award in 2013, has made the All-Star game in his past two seasons, and has been the owner of a stellar ERA- of 86 and FIP- of 81 over his 1,239 career innings.
Most impressively, he strikes people out like a total boss. Max's K% (25.6) is better than all but four starters over the past six seasons, and most of the guys ahead of him (No. 1 Yu Darvish, No. 2 Stephen Strasburg, and No. 3 Chris Sale) can't touch the amount of innings he's pitched. The only other starter that can touch his strikeout rate is demigod Clayton Kershaw.
So what are the Nationals getting? They're getting a pitcher who is in the top five percent of all starters in baseball -- who is in the midst of his prime, who has shown very good durability over the past six seasons, and who has a track record of performing about 15%-20% better than a league-average starting pitcher.
Great. Perfect. Well done, Mike Rizzo. High-fives for everyone. Scherzer is the prototypical ace, but he carries the same concerns most starting pitchers do: Will the spectre of Tommy John surgery, or an even worse injury, come to haunt him? Will he be able to adapt when his velocity or stuff starts to decline? We don't know, but this is a bet most general managers -- or at least the ones with enough money to make a move like this -- are willing to take.
No, this move is interesting only through the lens of team context. No team in baseball, save maybe the Dodgers, needed Max Scherzer less than the Washington Nationals did. First, the Nats were a general-consensus lock to run away with the battered NL East. Second, the Nationals already possessed a complete, effective, reliable rotation, making them one of, I don't know, four teams in all of baseball to be able to make that claim.
The Short View
Already in place in D.C. are staff ace Stephen Strasburg, still-slightly-underrated Jordan Zimmermann, the dynamic (in both good and bad ways) Gio Gonzalez, workhorse Doug Fister, and 2014 breakout Tanner Roark. In these five, the Nationals already had the makings of a scary-effective staff. Now, ostensibly, Roark gets shifted to the bullpen (or, perhaps, another team), and Scherzer slots in in his place. There are rumors a trade may be incoming, with any of the five existing Nats starters in play, but if no deal happens, Scherzer bumps Roark, and the Nats get better, right?
Right, but not by as much as you might think.
Projection systems aren't perfect, but they're pretty good. Steamer, one of the best of them, projects Roark to be worth approximately 1.2 wins above replacement in about 160+ innings next season. That's the line of a very slightly below-average starting pitcher in the league. Scherzer, on the other hand, rates about 3.8 wins in about 195 innings. Yes, that's a net positive of about two and a half wins when you upgrade from Roark to Scherzer. But there's one caveat: Roark was much better than a one-win pitcher in 2014. He was a three-win pitcher. If you believe in Tanner Roark (and there are reasons to think you should), maybe you bump him up to a win and a half, or two wins, and there's a chance he could be even better. In Scherzer's case, you could probably do the same, sure. Let's call Scherzer somewhere between a two- and three-win upgrade over Roark for the Nationals.
Well, that's great, but adding Scherzer to most teams' rotations would be something like a four-to-five win upgrade, I think. Most teams' No. 5 starters aren't nearly as good as Roark, either by projection or by 2014 value. Compare Roark to guys on other teams -- perhaps Shane Greene in Detroit or Chris Capuano in the Bronx -- and you're looking at a huge upgrade in terms of both performance and reliability.
For 2015, Scherzer gives the Nationals a slight but noticeable upgrade -- it's just one that they may not have needed given the likelihood they already had of making the playoffs. And sure, having a dynamite rotation is good for playoff baseball, but it's not necessarily an indicator of post-season success. Instead, signing Scherzer is probably about the long game as much as anything else.
The Long View
No, I think the Max Scherzer signing is about post-2015 for the Nationals. At the end of the 2015 season, the team will -- more than likely -- see Jordan Zimmermann, Doug Fister, Ian Desmond, and Denard Span all hit free agency. Zimmermann, the shadow ace of the Nationals for the past four seasons, is primed to make big money in free agency. Though he doesn't have the stellar peripherals that Scherzer does, he's startlingly effective and a master at limiting walks. Fister, Scherzer's old teammate, could walk as well, leaving the team with two holes in the rotation. Scherzer immediately fills one of those holes long-term, so looking at this move as something that builds for the future is a good idea.
If the Nationals were to, hypothetically, lose Desmond and Zimmermann, to say nothing of Fister and Span, there would be a legitimate drain on top-level talent in Washington. Both Desmond and Zimmermann have flashed five-win potential at times, and when you lose a five-win player, it hurts a lot unless you can bring back a five-win player to replace him. (Case study: Mr. Beane, Mr. Donaldson, and Mr. Zobrist.)
No, the addition of Scherzer is a long play, and it's one that gives the Nats options going forward. They could trade a pitcher now and gather talent to help them in other areas without losing a ton of immediate wins. They could stand pat with their super-rotation today and try to carry four dynamite starters into the playoffs, where their arms would out-match any and all comers not wearing Dodger blue.
Or, perhaps the most interesting option? The Nationals could be the rare contending team that deals away a major piece at the trade deadline. I'm enamored with this idea: wait until the deadline, when teams are desperate for starters, and deal Doug Fister (or Jordan Zimmermann, if the team is convinced they cannot re-sign / extend him long-term) to fill whatever immediate or future holes that need to be filled.
We saw last year that the market for top-line starters is still smoking-hot in July, and the Nationals would be in prime position either to add cheap future talent or to fill in gaps that may be created due to injury for a 2015 playoff run. In one of the worst-case scenarios, if one of the team's starting pitchers get injured, the Nationals have depth and may not need to make any move at all.
Look, I'm not sure anyone knows how this all is going to work out. Stephen Strasburg may return home to whatever planet he's from, leaving the Nats with a hole in the rotation. Fan-favorite Jordan Zimmermann may be on his way out, either due to his own wishes or due to the team not wanting to invest in his finesse. But the Scherzer signing, while a serious financial risk, empowers the Nationals to be flexible, creative, and make future moves depending on their own needs. They are in the driver's seat of their own destiny, which can be very difficult to do in baseball, where context, luck, and the moves of other teams drive so much of what happens.
Adding Max Scherzer was a very expensive proposition. And though we can't predict the future with any certainty, this investment could keep the Nationals relevant for a while. It must be nice to be able to afford a luxury like an extra ace.
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Bryan Grosnick is the Managing Editor of Beyond the Box Score. You can follow him on Twitter at @bgrosnick.