Dodgers’ pending free agents, Part V: Max Scherzer – Press-Enterprise

Editor’s note: This is the Friday, Sept. 24 edition of the Inside the Dodgers newsletter from reporter J.P. Hoornstra. To receive the newsletter in your inbox, sign up here.

The first, last, and heretofore only time Max Scherzer was a free agent came during the offseason of 2014-15. Andrew Friedman had just taken over as the Dodgers’ president of baseball operations. He had a lot of work to do.

Beyond Clayton Kershaw and Zack Greinke, the team’s starting pitching depth was nonexistent. This was especially true after the Dodgers traded Dan Haren to the Miami Marlins, part of a three-team trade that brought Howie Kendrick and Austin Barnes to Los Angeles. Hyun-Jin Ryu’s left shoulder labrum was torn, an injury that would ultimately cost him the entire 2015 season. One might argue, in hindsight, that the Dodgers were wise not to put all their eggs in the basket of one innings-eating starter. There were simply too many innings to eat.

Ultimately, Friedman concentrated his spending on veterans Brandon McCarthy and Brett Anderson. At midseason, he traded for Alex Wood and Mat Latos. Mike Bolsinger, acquired in a cash trade with the Diamondbacks, pitched 109-1/3 mostly competent innings. That quintet combined to take down 72 starts and provide 1.9 Wins Above Replacement.

On Jan. 21, 2015, Scherzer signed a heavily backloaded seven-year contract with the Washington Nationals. Depending on how you value the deferred money in the contract, Scherzer will have earned somewhere between $191 million and $210 million by the time he gets his final check. Scherzer will have provided the Nationals and Dodgers approximately 43 Wins Above Replacement and at least one championship.

It’s one of the great what-ifs of the last decade in Dodgers history: what if they had made the winning offer to Scherzer seven years ago? Would they have won a World Series (or two) before 2020? Who would have started behind him, and Kershaw, and Greinke in 2015 other than (checks notes) Carlos Frias?

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The Dodgers’ rotation is in a very different place now. It’s a much better place. Considering the difference between having Frias and Tony Gonsolin as your number-5 starter, it’s no wonder the 2015 club won 92 games and this year’s team is on pace to win 104. Now, some stranger-than-usual factors (the CBA negotiation, Trevor Bauer’s status) complicate the cost/benefit analysis of re-signing Scherzer. Bill Plunkett checked off those reasons and more in this piece from Monday, so I won’t rehash all of them here.

I think the concept of atonement is on the minds of many fans (and not just those who observe Yom Kippur) as it applies to the Dodgers’ second chance to sign Scherzer. It’s unfair to draw a straight line from December 2014 to December 2021, but I get it. Scherzer is still elite. The last couple of months – the Dodgers are 10-0 in Scherzer’s starts and still somehow trail the Giants in the standings – have illustrated his value to this team, and really to any team. If you’re a fan, you want the last couple of months to last forever.

Let’s at least dream on it a little bit.

Why Scherzer stays a Dodger

Let’s start with Bauer, actually. I don’t know anything about his criminal investigation that hasn’t been reported already. I think it’s safe to assume that if Bauer is healthy and eligible to pitch, this conversation isn’t happening. Scherzer probably isn’t a Dodger right now and, even if he is, there’s little reason to think Bauer would not be back in uniform in 2022.

There is some reason to believe Bauer won’t be back in 2022. To my knowledge, he hasn’t missed a paycheck yet. However, if Major League Baseball suspends him under its domestic violence policy, the Dodgers will not have to pay Bauer for all or part of next season. They will also be missing the kind of front-of-the-rotation, innings-eating pitcher they wanted when they signed Bauer to a three-year contract last winter. In his absence, Scherzer has played the role like a master thespian. The Dodgers would love to know if Bauer is facing criminal charges, or if he’ll be suspended by MLB, by the time they set their internal budget for next year. If Bauer isn’t a Dodger next season – I’m thinking strictly in baseball terms for now, and we certainly don’t have to forever – the pitching staff will lose a lot of innings. The Dodgers might want Scherzer to pitch those innings.

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And hey, Scherzer might not want a seven-year contract this time around. He won’t get one; he’s 37 after all. But the Dodgers might be OK giving him something less than that in terms of years. Andrew Friedman alluded to something in his interview with Plunkett that bears repeating: “part of the added value of making those trades (like the one for Scherzer) is you get to know the player better and they get to know us better” before their contract expires.

Thanks to the last two months, the Dodgers can more intimately know how Scherzer prepares, how he conditions, how he throws – to borrow front-office speak, whether his biomechanics are optimized for long-term health – and whether he deserves to be compensated like a typical 37-year-old or not. For the Dodgers, signing Scherzer after this season is a more educated bet than it would have been seven years ago.

Scherzer has been unusually healthy throughout his career, so who knows. Maybe he’s a biomechanical unicorn, a latter-day Nolan Ryan. On the other hand …

Why Scherzer doesn’t stay a Dodger

Past performance is no predictor of future success or failure. In December 2016, Rich Hill was effectively the same age as Scherzer when the Dodgers gave him a three-year, $48 million contract. The next two seasons were Hill’s healthiest by innings pitched since 2007 (and, remarkably, until this year). The Dodgers’ front office might have a reason to conclude Scherzer isn’t worth the risk, or at least see something in his profile that diminishes his value.

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Bauer might prohibit the Dodgers from re-signing Scherzer too, either because he’s still getting paid, still holding down a rotation spot, or both.

The argument against re-signing Scherzer really depends on the unseen or the unknowable – Bauer’s status, the CBA, Scherzer’s medical file, the Dodgers’ internal budget. That’s rare. As I scan Scherzer’s Statcast page for the kind of year-over-year changes that would raise a red flag about his performance, I just don’t see them. (One yellow flag is that his fastball velocity is eroding slightly as the league-average speed rises slightly, but it’s still an incredibly effective pitch by any measure.) Even at age 37, Scherzer has done just about everything he can to show he’s a top-of-the-rotation starter who deserves the kind of contract Scott Boras will demand for his client.

The Dodgers can see that much. So can every other team. Scherzer is a great fit on any pitching staff. In a rotation without Trevor Bauer, he’s a great fit in Los Angeles too. In a rotation with Bauer, there will be teams that need Scherzer more than the Dodgers. That’s not the totality of this equation. But until the Dodgers know what’s up with Bauer, I doubt the equation changes much.

Dodgers pending free agent reports:

Clayton Kershaw | Kenley Jansen | Corey Seager | Chris Taylor

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