After a “down” year in 2020 (119 ERA+, lowest mark since 2011), Max Scherzer put any doubts about his status as an ace to rest. His rebound was strong enough to earn him a spot as a finalist for the NL Cy Young award. This resurgence could not have come at a better time for the future Hall of Famer. At 37 years old, this could quite possibly be the last chance Max has at a major payday.
Due to his age and his phenomenal skill despite his age, Scherzer seems poised to sign a short-term, high AAV contract with a team ready to make a run at a pennant in 2022. Fellow righties Zack Greinke and Justin Verlander also fall into this category. Max is clearly the most desirable of the three, as questions remain about Verlander’s ability to return to form following Tommy John surgery. Meanwhile, Greinke has not matched Scherzer’s 2021 ERA+ (166) in a full campaign since his magical 2015 season. Due to these factors, Scherzer seems likely to get the biggest payday in 2022 of this year’s free agent class. Ben Clemens of Fangraphs projects Max to get a deal worth $70 million over two years. This $35 million AAV is the highest projected by Clemens. It would be tied for the third-largest contract by AAV in MLB history, joining Stephen Strasburg and Anthony Rendon at $35 million, while trailing Mike Trout and Gerrit Cole (each $36 million AAV).
While a return to Los Angeles remains plausible, it’s difficult to gauge exactly how determined the Dodgers are to retain their 2021 deadline acquisition. Their starting rotation in 2022 has a lot of question marks. Trevor Bauer could pitch an entire 2022 campaign or never step on a Major League mound again. Dustin May is not expected back from Tommy John surgery until the All-Star break at the earliest. Clayton Kershaw, in addition to Scherzer, is a free agent. Walker Buehler and Julio Urías appear to be the only rotation locks, with Tony Gonsolin likely to see plenty of starts as well. Assuming Bauer to miss 2022, this leaves the Dodgers with 3 healthy starters under contract for 2022. While David Price remains an internal starting option, the Dodgers will no doubt need to supplement this group, whether via Max Scherzer or other options.
Just about every other team with any intent to compete in 2022 should be heavily interested. He instantly changes the dynamic of any rotation he joins. He does have two key factors working against him. His age is likely to scare off some suitors. A team with a young core, such as the Tigers, who believe their window to be just opening would likely be less interested as the team may not truly be ready yet before Max’s contract and/or career end. His presumably hefty price tag will also take some destinations off the board. It’s difficult to imagine the Rays paying a single player $35 million a season.
The Red Sox will be looking to bolster their pitching and have deep pockets. Will Chaim be willing to make a large commitment for a 37-year-old pitcher? Given his focus on building up the organization to be competitive year-in and year-out, the lack of a qualifying offer attached to Max certainly makes him more attractive to Bloom. If Boston does make a big splash with a pitcher this Winter, Max Scherzer seems like the best fit.
The Astros are in a similar position, as their rotation depth was pushed to the limit in October, particularly after Lance McCullers Jr. went down during the Division Series. While McCullers is expected back by Spring Training, the team will be without Zack Greinke and will need to find some way to replace his innings. The Giants will need to add several pieces this off-season to maintain their status as a top team in the league. Kevin Gausman and Anthony DeSclafani are both significant losses from their rotation. Along with the departure of Kris Bryant, Farhan Zaidi will need to replace their production in some way, and Max Scherzer is perhaps the most reliable answer available.
While Max’s brilliance in 2021 was hardly a surprise from the three-time Cy Young award winner, it did reassure everyone in the baseball world that Max is more than capable of defying Father Time. In doing so, he has solidified himself as the top pitcher available this winter. His contract is going to be one of the largest in the history of the sport in terms of AAV, and given Scherzer’s past with mega-contracts, it will probably be worth every penny.
Matt O’Halloran is a junior mathematics major at the University of Massachusetts Lowell. He works in analytics with the school’s baseball program. He is a writer for Beyond the Box Score and an editor at Diamond Digest. He can be found on Twitter @matto20.