A Justin Verlander-sized contract for Max Scherzer could have been a bad investment for the Tigers. (Elizabeth Conley / Detroit News)
The Tigers gave starting pitcher Max Scherzer an opportunity to become an extremely rich man, and he turned it down.
The club called its offer “substantial” and said it would have made Scherzer “among the highest paid pitchers in baseball.”
ESPN’s Jayson Stark reported the annual average value of the deal would have fallen in the range of $24 million to $25 million, a bit lower than the $25.7 million Justin Verlander makes.
Fox Sports’ Jon Morosi credited his anonymous source with a more exact figure: $144 million paid over six seasons, which would put Scherzer at the same pay schedule as Cole Hamels.
Scherzer turned it down anyway.
The thing is, Scherzer probably will receive a larger total offer by another team this offseason, and that big number counts more than the average value when the figure is guaranteed.
The Tigers should be thankful they won’t actually be on the hook for the offer -- if it is as high as reported -- because seldom does such a long, high-priced deal with a starting pitcher actually work in a team’s favor.
True, in the short term, they need a pitcher with his ability. The 29-year-old starter has learned how to go deeper into games while still striking out batters at one of the highest paces in the major leagues. Scherzer K’d 28.7 percent of opposing batters in 2013, a figure second only to Yu Darvish.
His ERA may rank 20th over the past two seasons, but his Fielding Independent Pitching stat of 2.99 is good for seventh -- and if you question that stat just remember it’s the one that kept predicting Scherzer would only get better, as he did.
Over the past two seasons, he’s been worth 11 wins above replacement, per Fangraphs. That ranks him fourth in the big leagues among starting pitchers, behind only teammate Justin Verlander, Seattle’s Felix Hernandez and Los Angeles’ Clayton Kershaw.
The Tigers are trying to win a World Series, and their window is seemingly closing within the next handful of years.
But what if we begin to talk about the long-term health of the club?
Then we have to question the number of years, and that’s where the negotiations likely went off the tracks. The Tigers reportedly offered six years, but baseball free-market history tells us Scherzer will get seven. From someone. Whether it’s smart or not.
History also tells us offering pitchers long contracts is seldom a move that results in good things for the club. Once-dominant pitchers like CC Sabathia, Johan Santana and Roy Halladay dropped off as they aged after signing large deals. Even younger dominant pitchers like Zack Greinke may not be worth what they’re paid.
The Tigers know this. And they know the longer out you guarantee money to a pitcher, the less likely you are to get your money’s worth from the deal.
On a smaller scale, you just have to think back to Jeremy Bonderman, Nate Robertson or others who were guaranteed money in the years after the 2006 World Series run who never really paid off.
Now extend that to Scherzer at $24 million per season. He’s coming off a string of two seasons that ranks among the best starting pitchers in baseball, sure, but that’s no guarantee he’ll be a good bargain six or seven years from now.
There should be no “bad guys” here. Scherzer did what he thinks is best for his life, and he’s probably right. Someone’s going to pay him. The Tigers went as far as it made sense, and it just wasn’t far enough to get the job done.
Only time will tell if Scherzer is actually worth the $144 million he was offered. He may be one of the rare ones who is, and for years to come he could make the Tigers regret not going higher.
More likely, he’s not, and they’ll be able to better spend the money elsewhere.
Sinking $50 million of your annual budget into two starting pitchers for years into the future is a pretty risky endeavor. Scherzer may have just done the Tigers a huge favor by turning down their offer.