Each week, The Detroit News will look back at events and people from past sports moments, enlarging on experiences that might have been forgotten with time, or revisiting behind-the-scenes drama that never made it into print or on airwaves.
A few days before the Tigers packed their spring-camp bags and headed for Detroit and Comerica Park for Opening Day, 2014, they unloaded a pointed press release that sounded more like a war declaration.
“The Detroit Tigers have made a substantial, long-term contract extension offer to Max Scherzer that would have placed him among the highest-paid pitchers in baseball and the offer was rejected,” the release began, all but spitting each word. “As we have reiterated, it has been the organization’s intent to extend Max’s contract and keep him in a Tigers uniform well beyond the 2014 season.
“While this offer would have accomplished that, the ballclub’s focus remains on the start of the upcoming season, and competing for a world championship. Moving forward, there will be no further in-season negotiation and the organization will refrain from commenting on this matter.”
The Tigers were five months removed from what might have been the most sadistic defeat in their team history: a blown eighth-inning, 5-0, lead against the Red Sox in Game 2 of the American League Championship Series. The Tigers were six outs from winning the first two duels, on the road, and seemingly set to storm into the World Series and to a championship owner Mike Ilitch had for so long made his life’s goal.
Having watched David Ortiz and his grand-slam homer gut their Game 2 plans, and their World Series bid, the Tigers as 2014 arrived were beginning to see a long playoff run’s twilight.
Jim Leyland had retired and Brad Ausmus now was Tigers manager. The Tigers weren’t necessarily old, but they were getting older: Justin Verlander was 31; Miguel Cabrera was about to turn 31; Victor Martinez was 35; Ian Kinsler was headed for 32, and Torii Hunter, 39.
There was also the matter of a man who in seven months would become a free agent: Scherzer, who had won the 2013 Cy Young Award, and who during the past two seasons had become one of the most furious strikeout pitchers in baseball.
He was also four months from turning 30.
The Tigers viewed Scherzer, correctly as history was about to confirm, differently from past free-agent mistakes made by teams that had doused big-name starters, near or past 30, with too many millions owed for too many years: Kevin Brown, John Lackey, Pedro Martinez, Kevin Millwood, Carl Pavano, Jason Schmidt, etc.
No, even with a delivery that for years had made scouts nervous, Scherzer was too good, too dominant, too fearsome, for an owner as lavish as Ilitch to let get away.
Big payday on horizon
The Tigers were offering six years at $144 million: equivalent to what Cole Hamels at age 28 had signed a year earlier with the Phillies and just shy of the per-year salary Justin Verlander was about to be handed for a seven-year extension ($180 million) he would sign the following week.
It was big money, the Scherzer package. And yet it wasn’t enough to move a right-handed flamethrower and University of Missouri business major who, the Tigers knew, doubled as a finance and investment whiz and who liked the idea of a hot commodity — himself — hitting the open market.
His thoughts meshed with an agent’s creed. The only thing Scott Boras liked more than a solid-gold contract extension was a potential bank-vault opening in free agency.
Boras and Scherzer were willing to trust that health would hold for a man now on the edge of superstardom. That gamble was less risky thanks to an insurance policy the Tigers understood Boras and Scherzer were carrying. It would protect agent and player from a sudden bad elbow, or an evil line drive through the box that might shelve an All-Star pitcher and crimp his market value.
Of deep belief to the Boras-Scherzer team was that autumn’s free-agent bidding could, and should, defy anything the Tigers now were presenting.
In their third-floor offices at Comerica Park as Opening Day drew near, the Tigers were crunching numbers that more accurately were exploding. They would soon be paying Verlander $180 million. Cabrera was set for $21 million in 2013 and was a year away from an eventual megabuck extension every Tigers ticket-holder in the Milky Way expected them to hand the then-best hitter in baseball.
Ilitch and the Tigers viewed Scherzer as baseball nobility. They also were bumping into payroll realities even as they were about to hit 3 million tickets sold for the fourth time in seven seasons. Revenues weren’t matching a mid-market team’s overhead. If the Tigers expected to hang onto Cabrera, Verlander — and Scherzer — they would flirt with baseball’s luxury-tax ceiling and penalties. That is, if they were to pay the usual freight for 22 other players carried on a big-league active roster.
It was a business model destined for strains, if not all-out rupture.
There was another factor at work as Scherzer said to the Tigers: “Thanks — I’ll pass.”
It was his rotation status with the Tigers.
All but officially scripted on Comerica’s brick walls and on every game-ticket was the proclamation that Verlander was Detroit’s ace. He had been staff chief for nearly a decade. Scherzer had been in town for all of four years.
Scherzer was a human being supremely sure of his own skills — both as a pitcher and as a man who understood economics. He knew, too, that with staff-ace prestige came respect and perks not easy to quantify, but gratifying, professionally and personally.
The second-chair designation grated. He appreciated Verlander’s history and elevation. But a pitcher with Scherzer’s talent and principle could escape the co-pilot’s seat with another club and probably make a good deal more money in the process.
What a pitcher’s calculus also included, Tigers front-office officials then knew, was pride.
Verlander’s and Scherzer’s niches with the Tigers were both as close and as distant as their clubhouse lockers 30 feet apart. It was not so much a matter of hostility between the two even if they were different people and personalities. Verlander was gregarious and liked his celebrity status. Scherzer was quieter, more cerebral and, you could say, humbler if one wanted to apply subjective standards there.
Where the two men were virtually indistinguishable was in their pitching temperament. Verlander had shown even during college that he could find a moment’s edge by way of his internal fire. Scherzer was less flamboyant and seemingly more studied, more channeled, and yet just as prone to obliterate hitters as much by will as with his arm.
As a matter of justice, in a business sense anyway, Scherzer drawing less salary than Verlander would for him be a personal affront — even if he understood the Tigers’ position with a franchise pitcher.
But he wasn’t buying into second-chair designation — even for $144 million. Not in March of 2014.
Parties on both ends knew it was, essentially, Splitsville. Scherzer would pitch with his usual gallantry in 2014, the year the Tigers last made October’s playoffs: 18-5 record, 3.15 ERA, 1.17 WHIP, 252 strikeouts in 220.1 innings, and a fifth-place finish in the Cy Young sweepstakes.
But his hitch with the Tigers was about to end five years after the Tigers had gotten him from the Diamondbacks in what then might have been their most inflammatory trade since 1960 when they sent Harvey Kuenn to the Indians for Rocky Colavito.
At the Winter Meetings in Indianapolis, the Tigers, Yankees, and Diamondbacks pulled off a three-corner deal that had all the contortions and suspense of a Cirque du Soleil act.
Dave Dombrwoski, the deal-delighting Tigers general manager, was shipping his marquee center fielder, Curtis Granderson, to the Yankees, as well as starter Edwin Jackson to the Diamondbacks. The Tigers were raking in Scherzer and reliever Daniel Schlereth from the D’backs, as well as reliever Phil Coke and hotshot prospect Austin Jackson from the Yankees.
Detroit’s fans were so hot Tigers execs might have wondered if they’d need teargas to quash riots at Comerica Park. The irony: Most of those same Tigers devotees were just as steamed five years later when contract talks blew up and Scherzer eventually hooked on with the Nationals to the tune of seven years and $210 million.
The way in which a now-certain Hall of Fame pitcher came to Detroit was birthplace for 2014’s contract drama. And it was purely the product of scouts who were part of Dombrowski’s prized corps of advisers.
The Tigers had known about Scherzer, in detail, during his days at the University of Missouri. He was part of the 2006 draft’s starry group of pitchers, all of whom would go in the first 11 picks: Luke Hochevar, first to the Royals; Andrew Miller, sixth to the Tigers; Clayton Kershaw, seventh to the Dodgers; Tim Lincecum, 10th to the Giants, and Scherzer, 11th to the Diamondbacks.
Scherzer might have beaten them all to that first slot had it not been for a delivery scouts feared. It was, in scouting parlance, “violent” and looked to many like something that would send Scherzer’s right elbow to a surgeon’s knife.
But the more Tigers scouts followed him in the minors and in his early cameo with the Diamondbacks, the more Scott Reid, Dick Egan, and Scott Bream were convinced a right-handed dynamo with a high-90s fastball, slider and change-up was on the brink of top-gun starter status.
“I’d be sitting here lying if I thought Max would turn into the pitcher he is,” said Bream, then a Tigers scout and now vice president of player personnel for the Tigers. “We just thought (in 2009) he was a guy who hadn’t quite gotten over the hump, but who was on the cusp of becoming something special.
“I think some other organizations, and even the Diamondbacks, were worried about his delivery, long-term. But we had a number of people who had seen him a lot: Scott Reid lives in Arizona, I live in Arizona. Dick Egan had seen him a lot.
“We all recommended him.”
As acquisitions go, it became for the Tigers something akin to the Louisiana Purchase in terms of Scherzer’s place and presence on four consecutive Tigers division flags from 2011-14. It might also be remembered that it was Scherzer who had a 5-0 lead in that cruel game at Fenway Park in 2013, all before Big Papi and a bullpen that too often haunted a team from Detroit destroyed Ilitch’s World Series dream.
Not that Scherzer, alone, could have made the difference these past five years. But it seems fitting, if not coincidental, that Scherzer left Detroit at the same time Tigers playoff appearances likewise disappeared.
Lynn Henning is a freelance writer and former Detroit News sports reporter.