January 17, 2014 at 1:00 am

Lynn Henning

Skirting arbitration again doesn't mean Max Scherzer is here for good

Max Scherzer, who will be 30 in July, would be a free agent after this season and would command a considerable pay raise. (Robin Buckson / Detroit News)

Farewell to Max Scherzer?

Probably. And that’s not necessarily news. It was always going to be difficult to tether Scherzer to a long life in Detroit as a right-handed starter talented enough to match Justin Verlander’s elitism and Cy Young trophy.

But it became even more unlikely this week, after Clayton Kershaw signed a $215-million extension with the Dodgers, that Scherzer can stick in Detroit past the 2014 season and his impending autumn free agency.

Scherzer could easily draw the $200-million-plus Kershaw pulled when Scherzer and his agent, Scott Boras, begin interviewing potential new big-league clients in November, which appears likely.

The Tigers are known for busting payroll ceilings far beyond any height a market of Detroit’s size and resources should allow or sustain. A man named Mike Ilitch decided to authorize his own market there and the Tigers have prospered, as did Ilitch’s other team, the Red Wings, before a helpful but constraining salary cap became part of the NHL realm.

Still, there are limits.

The Tigers have likely reached their payroll summit at the $150-million-per-year mark. There were unmistakable signs during the past offseason that the Tigers were managing salaries along those lines, beginning with the off-lifting of Prince Fielder’s absurd contract, and also with the export of Doug Fister to the Nationals in a deal for two young left-handers Ian Krol and Robbie Ray who won’t in the immediate years cost the Tigers a fraction of what Fister stands to earn.

Dave Dombrowski has always said the Tigers can afford two Mount Everest players and salaries on a roster the Tigers front-office chief oversees. His boss, Ilitch, made an exception when he signed Fielder 24 months ago to replace a knee-shredded Victor Martinez as the third big-name, big-payday star.

But you saw in November how long that brand of spending can be accommodated in Detroit. It becomes then a question of which remaining penthouse employee the Tigers will retain, assuming, as Dombrowski has said, that only two can be carried.

Verlander holds one of those high-roller’s money wads. It probably leaves two heavyweight superstars to duke it out for the second cut. And in this dollar-dense duel, Miguel Cabrera almost certainly will beat Scherzer as the Man Most Likely To Stay In Detroit.

It’s simple logic when Cabrera turns 31 in April and Scherzer celebrates birthday No. 30 in July. Cabrera also happens to be an everyday player, as well as the game’s best hitter, which tends to be an easier skill than pitching to project during a player’s golden years in big-league baseball.

It’s an even simpler analysis when you consider each man’s agent.

Cabrera’s negotiator, Fernando Cuza, tends to be more open to extensions than is Scherzer’s hired gun, who loves the sheer financial bliss in taking a star of Scherzer’s luster to free agency.

Ilitch, of course, has done heavy business with Boras and might yet make an offer so lavish it dissuades Scherzer and even Boras from looking past Detroit.

If you believe such a scenario is plausible, go for it. But it is not a percentage forecast. Not when the Tigers have been steeling for Scherzer’s departure with the Fister trade and with their first-round draft pick last June of Jonathon Crawford.

Nor is it likely Scherzer will be interested in any Motown discounts, even if he and the Tigers shook hands Friday on a 2014 deal a few ticks ahead of this year’s arbitration deadline.

Scherzer has said all the right and proper things about Detroit. His affection is real. Scherzer, though, is the best businessman in the Tigers clubhouse. No other player is close to him in following the financial world and understanding markets.

There is a reason he entrusted his future contracts to Boras. There is a reason a pitcher who can’t pass up a restaurant coupon has decided to pay Boras 5 percent of a contract’s worth versus the 3 percent other agents charge.

That decision, to team up with Boras, was predicated on a pitcher’s desire to be a baseball businessman every bit as sterling as the pitcher he is.

The Tigers understand this. They also appreciate that starters tend to lose some zip during their 30s. They know, above all, the payoff for allowing Scherzer to sign elsewhere will be a more defensible payroll, as well as an extra first-round draft pick in 2015.

Beginning with Ilitch’s past tendencies, you can rationally build a case for Scherzer remaining with the Tigers. But the real baseball world of Boras, and Kershaw, and where the Tigers perhaps see themselves in the years ahead, makes it more likely that 2014 will be a great pitcher’s grand finale in Detroit.

lynn.henning@detroitnews.com
twitter.com @Lynn_Henning

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