Nationals’ Skid Opens Up Possibility of Scherzer, Turner Trades

With a 6–16 July dropping their record to 46–54, it’s increasingly clear that 2021 is not the Nationals’ year. Even with the Mets refusing to run away with the NL East, Washington is 7 1/2 games out of first place entering Wednesday and an even more daunting 11 1/2 games back in the Wild Card race, with cumulative playoff odds of 1.0%. The team appears likely to be sellers at the deadline, and short of trading Juan Soto, just about every player might be available, including ace Max Scherzer and All-Star shortstop Trea Turner — though there’s no guarantee either gets moved.

“I think if we turn into definite sellers, everything will be on the table,” said general manager Mike Rizzo on July 20 when asked about his deadline approach. At the time, the Nationals were 44–49, but Rizzo said that they were taking a dual approach, talking to teams about potential acquisitions if they escaped from their tailspin. Two wins and five losses later, it’s clear that the needle points to selling, particularly with the Nationals no longer able to look to the return of Stephen Strasburg, whom the team announced will undergo season-ending surgery to alleviate neurogenic thoracic outlet syndrome. Washington is also still without Kyle Schwarber, who may not be available for another week or two as he recovers from the right hamstring strain that has sidelined him since July 3.

The most obvious prize if the Nationals are selling is Scherzer, whose seven-year, $210 million contact expires at the end of this season. Scherzer, who celebrated his 37th birthday on Tuesday, has been worth every penny and more of that deal, helping the Nationals to their first championship in 2019, winning two Cy Young awards, and making a very strong case for a spot in Cooperstown. He’s in the midst of another solid campaign, pitching to a 2.83 ERA and 3.47 FIP in 105 innings and striking out 35.1% of hitters, matching his career-high. He’s also 74 strikeouts away from becoming the 19th pitcher to reach 3,000 strikeouts, a milestone he projects to attain by the end of this season.

Trading for Scherzer isn’t as simple as just offering up a couple of quality prospects. The biggest issue is his 10-and-5 rights (at least 10 years of major league service, the last five with the same team), which allow him to reject a trade to any team. In late June, agent Scott Boras told NBC Sports that to agree to a trade, “The reality of it is it’s going to have to lead to something.” That was taken to mean a contract extension, but Boras later clarified, saying. “When players are traded, and you refer to contract amendments, it does not necessarily mean an extension. It could be any amendment that gives him a reason to exercise his rights. That’s up to the player at the time. Max and I have never discussed the subject.”

Scherzer could use his no-trade protection to direct himself toward a team, and reportedly, he’s said to prefer the West Coast. In the epic NL West race between the upstart Giants, defending champion Dodgers, and lagging but aggressive Padres, any one of those teams could view him as the difference between a division title or playing in the Wild Card game. And for as strong as each of those contenders are, the fronts of their rotations are showing some wear and tear. The Dodgers are without Clayton Kershaw, who’s working his way back from a bout of forearm inflammation that has sidelined him since early July; he threw a three-inning simulated game earlier this week. They’re also without Trevor Bauer, whose administrative leave has been extended through at least Aug. 6 as both the Pasadena Police Department and Major League Baseball conduct separate assault investigations; a longer suspension remains possible. The Padres’ rotation has a 5.60 ERA and 4.81 FIP this month, with Yu Darvish particularly struggling (7.32 ERA, 5.95 FIP). For the Giants, neither Kevin Gausman (4.87 ERA, 4.63 FIP) nor Johnny Cueto (5.57 ERA, 4.67 FIP) have fared well in July.

Those three teams are hardly alone. Via The Athletic’s Jayson Stark, at least eight others are known to be in pursuit:

SNY’s Andy Martino was even more definitive regarding the Mets, reporting, “Scherzer does not want to play in New York… even if he did, the Nationals wouldn’t want to do that.”

Beyond Scherzer’s 10–5 rights is the money factor, which is both considerable and complicated. Here’s MLB Trade Rumors, with input from The Athletic’s Ken Rosenthal:

The roughly $11.8MM remaining of Scherzer’s $35MM salary for 2021 is entirely deferred until 2028, so a new team wouldn’t have to pay that money out for seven years. However, Scherzer’s luxury tax number would also be around the $11.8MM mark, which is certainly a factor for teams trying to avoid a tax payment. Scherzer has another $7.5MM in signing bonus money due this September, but Rosenthal notes that this bonus payment “is solely the Nationals’ obligation.”

Right now, the Dodgers are the only team over the $210 million Competitive Balance Tax threshold, but the Red Sox, Astros, and Padres would all cross it if they acquired Scherzer without subtracting elsewhere, as would the two New York teams.

As if all of that weren’t daunting enough, Scherzer was scratched from his scheduled start on Saturday due to inflammation in his right triceps, which he believes is related to swinging a bat in the wake of his mid-June stint on the IL for groin inflammation. The good news is that he underwent an MRI last Friday, which revealed no strain or other structural damage.

As for what Scherzer could bring back in trade, two years ago Baseball America‘s Cameron Levy evaluated the previous four deadlines worth of deals (2015–18), which included the rentals of David Price (traded from the Tigers to the Blue Jays in ’15) and Darvish (traded from the Rangers to the Dodgers in ’17). Levy concluded, “As far as pitchers on expiring deals, frontline starters set to become free agents at the end of the season generally bring back one Top 100 Prospect and a top-30 player from the other team’s system.” In the Price deal, the top-ranked prospect, Daniel Norris, entered the season 18th on BA‘s list, though Matthew Boyd, 29th on the Blue Jays’ list at the outset of the season, has had more success in the majors. The Darvish return was headlined by Willie Calhoun, who was 92nd on BA‘s preseason list but vaulted to 36th the next year. The Astros’ August 31, 2017 acquisition of Justin Verlander, who wasn’t included in the study because of the different deadline and less time remaining, was headlined by Franklin Pérez, who entered the season 54th on BA’s list and climbed to 35th the next spring.

Still, it’s clear the market for Scherzer’s services is a busy one. Per MLB Network’s Jon Morosi, there’s a belief that a deal could happen as early as Wednesday night.

Beyond the availability of Scherzer, the biggest question regarding the Nationals is whether they’ll trade Turner. He didn’t appear to be available until MLB Network’s Peter Gammons reported on Tuesday that Nationals ownership doesn’t plan to extend the 28-year-old shortstop, who can become a free agent after the 2022 season:

The Washington Post’s Chelsea Janes reported that Turner is drawing heavy interest from teams “but would need to be presented with a total no-brainer of a deal.”

Turner is in the midst of a stellar campaign, hitting .320/.368/.519 (136 wRC+) with 18 homers and 4.2 WAR, a mark that ranks third in the league behind Fernando Tatis Jr. and Ronald Acuña Jr. Including last year’s shortened season, he’s hit .327/.378/.546 with 30 homers, 33 steals, a 145 wRC+ and 7.0 WAR in 155 games; among shortstops, only Tatis has a higher wRC+ or WAR, and only Tatis and Marcus Semien have more homers. As Javier Báez, Carlos Correa, Corey Seager, and Trevor Story look to their big free-agent paydays this winter with Francisco Lindor’s 10-year, $341 million deal as a yardstick, it’s clear that Turner is in line for a major deal. The fact that he’ll be heading into his age-30 season, though, and that injuries and bad timing have limited him to just two seasons of 100 or more games (this will be the third) during his seven-year career, probably leaves him short of a Lindor-sized haul.

While players with a year of club control remaining bring back bigger hauls than rentals, Turner fell off our Trade Value Top 50 list last year, then played his way back to Honorable Mention this year. As an impact player, he might net a couple of Top 100 prospects, perhaps with a 60 FV type in the mix, though it’s unknown if that would be enough to compel the Nationals to deal him. The chances of them doing so anyway were lowered on Tuesday, when he left their game against the Phillies after the top of the first inning because of a positive COVID-19 test. If he’s not vaccinated — manager Dave Martinez declined to comment on whether he was but noted that vaccinated players, coaches and staffers don’t get tested regularly (ahem) — he’ll miss a minimum of 10 days.

Even if the Nationals choose to hold onto Scherzer and Turner, they have several other players likely to be dealt; the possibility of bundling any of them into a package with one of the aforementioned names could create a more impressive return. Most notable among the trade candidates are pending free agents Brad Hand, Daniel Hudson, Yan Gomes, and Josh Harrison. Every contender is looking for bullpen help, and the Nationals can offer both a lefty and a righty with closing experience, which isn’t to say that they don’t come with dings. After a stellar 2020 with Cleveland, during which he led the AL with 16 saves and posted a 2.05 ERA and 1.37 FIP, Hand was solid through this season’s first half, converting 19 of 21 save chances with a 2.43 ERA (but a 3.91 FIP). After going 12 days between appearances due to the All-Star break, however, he’s been scored upon in four out of five outings, taking losses in three straight games over a six-day span and blowing three saves within a nine-day span; his ERA has risen to 3.67, his FIP to 4.40. Hudson, after a disastrous 2020 as closer (6.10 ERA, 6.29 FIP, 10-for-15 in saves), has pitched to a 2.20 ERA and 2.45 FIP in a setup role, but he missed nearly four weeks in June and July due to inflammation in his right elbow.

Gomes is currently on the IL for an oblique strain, though he’s believed to be nearing the point where he can go out on a rehab assignment. The 34-year-old backstop is hitting .266/.320/.439 (101 wRC+), though his pitch framing, which from 2013 to ’18 was 19.3 runs above average, has declined to -4.7 runs this year, his third straight below-average season. Still, he might have great appeal to a contender getting replacement-level work out of its catchers, as the Astros, Padres, and soon-to-be Guardians are. Harrison is hitting .282/.358/.406 (109 wRC+) while making 59 starts at second, 12 in left, seven at third, two in center, and one in right. After spending the first half as the team’s regular second baseman, he covered left in the final week before the All-Star break once Schwarber went down, then moved over to third when Starlin Castro was placed on administrative leave in connection with a domestic violence investigation.

As for Schwarber, whom the Nationals signed to a one-year, $10 million deal after he was non-tendered by the Cubs, the 28-year-old slugger has hit .253/.340/.570 (137 wRC+). Though he hasn’t played since July 2, his 25 homers still rank second in the NL, that after an incredible 18-game binge during which he hit 16 homers from June 12 to 29. There’s no timetable for his return, but as of July 23, he had resumed jogging and taking batting practice, with Martinez noting on July 26 that while he was making good progress, he had yet to run the bases. Thus, a team trading for Schwarber would not get an immediately available player (a situation that could actually work in its favor if it has a post-deadline roster crunch) but would have to finish overseeing his rehab. Plenty of teams could use the power boost that he would provide if healthy, even if that’s not until the second or third week of August; whoever gets him will inherit the $11.5 million mutual option and $3 million buyout in his contract.

While there are other Nationals who could be dealt, they’re less immediately enticing; Patrick Corbin and Jon Lester have both been dreadful this year, for example. Still, en route to a second straight sub-.500 season following their World Series win, the Nationals appear headed for a shakeup. We’ll soon see just how major it is.

Brooklyn-based Jay Jaffe is a senior writer for FanGraphs, the author of The Cooperstown Casebook (Thomas Dunne Books, 2017) and the creator of the JAWS (Jaffe WAR Score) metric for Hall of Fame analysis. He founded the Futility Infielder website (2001), was a columnist for Baseball Prospectus (2005-2012) and a contributing writer for Sports Illustrated (2012-2018). He has been a recurring guest on MLB Network and a member of the BBWAA since 2011. Follow him on Twitter @jay_jaffe.

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David Kleinmember
1 year ago

As a fan of an nl team that’s likely going to the playoffs and has no shot at Scherzer I’d like to see him traded to an American League team, I’d love to see him go to Toronto but there’s no chance of that happening.

1 year ago
Reply to  David Klein

Oops wrong pitcher

1 year ago
Reply to  David Klein

With 10-5 rights he is going to have a lot of say in where he goes, and he’s already expressed some interest in going to a west coast team. I hate to say it, but that probably means one of the three leaders in the NL West.

I mean if I’m the Giants I am going to be all over Max Scherzer.