Insta-Reaction: Nationals Sign Max Scherzer

Today is a great day to be a Nationals fan. Max Scherzer is an absolute assassin on the mound. Already one of the best pitchers in baseball, like Doug Fister before him a move to the NL East will make him even more deadly. Scherzer’s numbers will get a boost from the lack of a designated hitter and pretty good infield defense (Ryan Zimmerman at first!).

Since it’s so obvious Max Scherzer makes the Nationals a better team short term and long term, let’s break down the implications of this signing–of which there will be many–and try to answer some of the biggest questions.

Does someone get traded?

Likely. It’s really hard to imagine the Nationals going into 2015 with six above average starting pitchers (and “above average” is really underselling how great they all are). It just seems like an incredible waste of resources to have Gio Gonzalez or Tanner Roark in the bullpen when either one of them could be a number 2 on a number of MLB teams. It’s highly likely Rizzo will try to leverage his resources by trading one of his starters for future assets (i.e. prospects).

But who to trade? The most obvious candidate is Jordan Zimmermann, who becomes a free agent next year. In fact, it seems like the Nationals took some of the money designated for Zimmermann’s contract extension and gave it to Scherzer instead (more on that below). Therefore, it seems logical Zimmermann would be the player traded, essentially making this a Seven Years of Scherzer plus prospects for one year of Zimmermann transaction. You can’t just assume Zimm will be traded however, simply because we don’t know how hot the market is for a pitcher one year from free agency. If recent history is a guide (Jeff Samardzija to trade to the White Sox), the Nationals could fail to attract an elite prospect for Zimmermann.

Stephen Strasburg, with 2 years until free agency and just as unlikely to re-sign with the Nationals, seems like a better trade prospect. Strasburg would demand more in a trade and Rizzo might be willing to move him with 2 top pitching prospects (Lucas Giolito and AJ Cole) on schedule to join the rotation in 2016.

Doug Fister, with one year until free agency, has the same problem on the trade market as Zimmermann. And since his return is likely lower, the difference between the trade return and a first round pick in 2016 (the compensation if he leaves) is that much lower.

Gio Gonzalez, under team control for 3 more years, is an underrated trade candidate. He may draw some interest as a lefty, but shoulder troubles last year might scare off a few trade partners.

Considering all factors, the best guess here is a Strasburg trade.

What if the Nats don’t make a trade?

This is where it gets weird. Do you move Tanner Roark, and his 2.85 ERA in 198.2 innings to the bullpen? Even though Roark is considered the Nats “5th starter”–judging by his move to the bullpen in the 2014 playoffs–it seem illogical to move him there full time. First, Roark doesn’t have traditional “bullpen stuff”–a big fastball and devastating secondary pitch. Moreover, Roark is under team control for 5 more seasons, meaning he has a big role in future starting rotations. It seems like a poor player development choice to move a guy to the bullpen only to move him back one year later. The franchise is better off letting him continue to develop as a starter.

By the same token, can you move Gio Gonzalez, a 2012 Cy Young contender, to the bullpen? As a lefty, Gonzalez would create more matchup problems for opposing hitters, and his high strikeout numbers (9.2 per 9 innings in 2014) make him an attractive bullpen candidate. On the flip side, Gio Gonzalez would need to harness his control to be effective as a reliever. Gio might have trouble transitioning to the bullpen, considering he often takes a few innings to “settle in” as a starting pitcher.

One outside the box solution that’s unlikely but intriguing: go with a 6 man rotation to keep your starters fresh throughout the season and operate assuming one of the six starters will get hurt, thereby having the problem solve itself. The 6 man rotation isn’t as crazy as it sounds, as the difference between the Nats’ number 1 and number 6 starter is the smallest in baseball. And if you were to look at numbers alone, you’d have a hard time even distinguishing starter number 1 from number 6. The Nats are truly is a weird world right now.

If the Nationals have the money to sign Max Scherzer, why didn’t they just re-sign Jordan Zimmermann?

This is the question that’ll be asked a million times, and only Mike Rizzo has the answer. But here’s my best guess. First, Rizzo might prefer Scherzer. Why is there the presumption a team prefers to sign it’s own players? Scherzer is an elite starter and one Rizzo is very familiar with (Rizzo drafted Scherzer with Arizona). With Scherzer and Zimmermann on the table side by side, each demanding market money, maybe Rizzo simply chose the better player.

Second, Scherzer was a free agent; Zimmermann was not. This may seem like a distinction without a difference to you, but extending a player carries more risk than signing one via free agency. Zimm is already under contract next year, meaning the consequences for a bad 2015 (performance or injury) falls entirely on the Nationals. This is why teams often demand players accept less money if they’re extending before they’re eligible for free agency. It might be as simple as this: if a player wants free agent money, he better be a free agent.

Does this mean Zimmermann and Desmond will leave as free agents?



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