Henning: Re-signing Scherzer has its price — and payoff

Lynn Henning, The Detroit News
Free agent pitcher Max Scherzer and agent Scott Boras reportedly are asking for a contract in the $200 million range.

He sits on the free agent market like a gleaming showcase automobile, tempting a person who loves cars to bite on a prize both sturdy and exhilarating.

It can't be easy, Max Scherzer's availability, if you're Tigers owner Mike Ilitch.

He might or might not agree the Tigers minus Scherzer look like a team destined to win 85 or so games in 2015. He probably agrees that with Scherzer his Tigers would be a favorite to win the American League Central for a fifth consecutive time.

But the cost. It must be regarded even by a man of Ilitch's largesse as a terrific gamble to re-sign his ace pitcher to a long-term deal. At the $200-million-plus Scherzer and agent Scott Boras are reportedly asking, Ilitch has proper qualms about handing immense cash to a man who in seven months turns 31.

There are hang-ups to a Scherzer signing that go beyond the simple crashing of any payroll limits Ilitch and the Tigers have so far observed. Signing Scherzer to even a $175-million deal would likely take the Tigers in 2015 well past the $189 million line big-league teams must toe before paying a luxury tax on the over-run.

The cost isn't prohibitive – 17.5 percent on the dollars paid beyond $189 million. But the tax would increase to 30 percent in 2016 if the Tigers happened to slip for a second consecutive year past the ceiling.

That likely isn't Ilitch's primary concern. The question, logically, based on Detroit's market size, is whether he can add another $100 million-$200 million on a payroll for which he already owes close to a half-billion dollars into the next decade.

At age 85, it might not be Mike Ilitch's problem, per se, but it will be someone's issue. And he is both businessman and man enough to observe his conscience and to be careful about any budget-busting financial moves, which a Scherzer signing by any party will almost certainly represent.

And at the same time he and the Tigers are trying to win. He lost his best shot in 2013 when Miguel Cabrera's torn groin and Bruce Rondon's forearm strain probably cost Detroit a World Series. Bad luck there, very bad, or there would have been a more conservative, maybe a more successful, short- and long-term approach to crafting the Tigers in 2014 and in the seasons ahead.

But because a world championship is the Hope Diamond a two-team professional sports owner wants as an ultimate moment of business gratification, Ilitch is still trying in concert with his front-office guru, Dave Dombrowski, to win that championship.

Scherzer could deliver it. More than any player available today, Scherzer, with his ability every five days to dominate a baseball game, offers an edge, not only during a six-month regular season, but in the playoffs, even if his right-handed derring-do took the Tigers no further than three American League Championship Series in the five seasons he has pitched in Detroit.

So, an owner must consider that reality, as well, before committing a potentially vast and risky sum on a single man.

You know on one level Ilitch has said yes to such a venture. He authorized $144 million as Detroit's offer to Scherzer last March. A pitcher who finds the marketplace to be a special brand of thrill-ride said no to Ilitch and took his own risks ahead of free agency.

Now, he and Boras are prepared to sit, and wait, well into the winter, at least, as teams gearing for spring camp, and dreaming increasingly of stealing a World Series trophy, see Scherzer and his powerhouse arm there for the taking.

Who budges first?

If you care to take him at his and Boras' price.

At the moment, discipline is whipping impulse on the part of big-league clubs. They're walking away from the showroom. Too expensive, they're telling Boras and Scherzer — for now.

The Yankees are in luxury-tax jail and insist they have no interest in Scherzer. The Tigers and all other would-be contenders are either making other plans and contingencies or waiting for time and the market to change their minds.

"I guess anything can happen," Dombrowski said last week, clearly keeping a team's options open, "but we're not in active pursuit of that situation (Scherzer) at this time."

The Tigers can't be comfortable, not even after Dombrowski did a nifty bit of flesh-peddling in the past couple of weeks. With the specter of Scherzer working elsewhere, he traded for two starters, Shane Greene and Alfredo Simon, even as he sent Rick Porcello to the Red Sox and potentially replaced two quality starters with two certified back-end rotation pieces.

The Tigers got some essential help beyond Greene and Simon — Alex Wilson should boost the bullpen and Yoenis Cespedes is a fine grab for the outfield — but this is a team that appears today to be as close to a .500 club as it might be to a contender that could win 90 games, as the Tigers did in 2014, with Scherzer and Porcello helping mightily.

Meanwhile, nothing says Ilitch won't revisit the dealership, have a chat with a sales person, Boras, with whom he has done an enormous amount of past business, and somewhere down the line succumb to Scherzer's talents and to an owner's dream.

This is a tough one. For everyone, perhaps, but Boras and Scherzer, who know their 2014 gamble likely paid off, no matter who drives away with the showcase's jewel.