Rangers Land Scherzer in 2023 Deadline’s First Blockbuster Trade

Vincent Carchietta-USA TODAY Sports

Friday night, a frustrated Max Scherzer surveyed his surroundings — a Mets team in fourth place, 17 games behind the Braves, with just a 16.3% chance of making the playoffs — and did not like what he saw. Scherzer told reporters that he was “disappointed” in his team’s fortunes, while acknowledging his own role in how the season has gone. The decision to trade closer David Robertson signaled a shift to sell mode, and indicated to Scherzer that he was due a chat with his bosses.

The fruits of that conversation ripened less than 24 hours later, and the three-time Cy Young winter is now bound for Texas, with prospect Luisangel Acuña headed in the other direction. The Mets are also sending roughly $35.7 million along to offset the considerable remaining salary due Scherzer this season and next.

It’s not an Ohtani trade, but this is about as big a name as you’ll see move at the deadline otherwise.

If the Scherzer of today were the Scherzer of five years ago, the Mets would probably not be sellers, and the price to acquire him would have been much higher than it ended up being. Scherzer hasn’t thrown 200 innings in a season since 2018, and his results this season have been quite un-Scherzerlike. His K% and ERA are both worse than they’ve been since 2011. His FIP, 4.73, is the highest of his career, which it bears repeating dates all the way back to Arizona in 2008.

The big problem for Scherzer this year has been the home run ball; he’s allowed 1.92 HR/9, the third-highest mark among qualified starters. He’s getting dingered on more than twice as frequently as he did in 2022, and is allowing 0.72 more home runs per nine innings than the league average. You don’t need to be Bill James to figure out what kind of effect that’s had on his season.

Back in 2019, Scherzer was scratched from a World Series start when he woke up with neck pain and stiffness so severe he couldn’t lift his throwing arm. He’s now some four years further into the period of life when the human body responds progressively less well to physical activity, and his decline in durability and effectiveness reflect that.

Nevertheless, Scherzer has a very long way to decline before he’s no longer a very good major league pitcher. His ERA- is 98; his strikeout rate, walk rate, and whiff rate are all significantly better than the league average. At the very worst, he’s a mid-rotation starter who can be trusted to make a playoff start. At best, well, Scherzer is still less than 24 months removed from being a Cy Young finalist.

Even before Scherzer, the Rangers already had close to $100 million in 2023 salary sunk into starting pitching. With the exception of Dane Dunning, who was acquired in the Lance Lynn trade (no, the Lance Lynn trade before that), the Rangers had filled out their rotation exclusively through free agency. So despite the heavy financial investment at the position, when deGrom blew out his elbow, the Rangers had to ask some hard questions. Specifically: How badly do you want to start Martín Pérez or Andrew Heaney in a playoff game? Or even Dunning, for that matter?

Anything approaching peak Scherzer would be the top starter in Texas’ rotation. Even a geriatric Scherzer would be useful.

And in this market, that kind of upgrade does not come cheap.

Earlier in the week, the Mets positively purloined Marco Vargas from Miami in the Robertson trade, and getting Acuña for Scherzer is a similar coup. Acuña — and yes, sorry for making you wait 600 words to find out that he’s Ronald’s brother if you didn’t know that already — is a 21-year-old middle infielder who’s currently hitting .315/.377/.453 at Double-A Frisco. In case you were worried that Ronald got all the speed in the Acuña family, Luisangel is 42-for-47 in stolen base attempts.

The younger Acuña is listed at 5-foot-8, 181 pounds, which Eric Longenhagen assures me is not the artifact of nobody updating his bio since he signed his first pro contract at age 16. Acuña might be short, but he’s one of those middle infielders who under different circumstances could’ve been a punt returner, or some other profession that attracts short guys with lots of lower body strength.

The little Acuña has fast hands and the physical tools to stick at shortstop, but he needs to get over his current inclination to swing at everything. With a more patient approach, he could be a good big league shortstop, and soon. Eric’s most recent prospect list update has Acuña as the no. 56 prospect in baseball and the second-best in the Mets’ system by a whisker; Alex Ramírez is no. 55 overall, so you could consider them co-top prospects if you wanted to.

Acuña’s position, talent, and proximity to the majors obviously made him attractive to the Mets, and with Corey Seager and Marcus Semien entrenched on both sides of second base for the next several years, those same qualities made him expendable to the Rangers. Thus, we have a trade.

“Bad team trades good player nearing end of contract to good team for big prospect” is not unusual in and of itself, but the figures involved make for interesting reading from a financial perspective. The Mets and Rangers have been two of the most aggressive spenders since the lockout. (Seager, Semien, and Jon Gray all signed hours before the lockout, I know, but nobody likes a pedant.) The Mets, in fact, have broken every norm about major league payroll. The Rangers haven’t been quite as aggressive, coming in at no. 9 in payroll this season (10th by luxury tax payroll), but the Mets have made nation-states look like the Pittsburgh Pirates since Steve Cohen took over. Texas has still speedrun its rebuild by buying a contending team mostly off the shelf.

Even the involvement of Scherzer, specifically, ended up complicating things. Scherzer was a member of the MLBPA executive subcommittee during the most recent CBA talks. Backed by his agent, Scott Boras, Scherzer understands his economic standing within the game as well as any player.

Once news of the trade started to break on Saturday evening, it took a few hours for the deal to be finalized. Scherzer not only had to waive his no-trade clause, there was brief disagreement over Scherzer’s opt-out for 2024. The Rangers wanted some assurance that they weren’t trading a global top-60 prospect for a rental; Scherzer, ever aware of the importance of leverage, wanted to keep his options open, even if it was always vanishingly unlikely that he’d turn down more than $43 million in order to become a free agent again at age 39.

In the end, Scherzer did offer such assurances, and will not opt out of his contract. That leaves the financial details; the Mets are paying down almost two-thirds of the balance of Scherzer’s contract, leaving the Rangers on the hook for some $22.5 million over the next 14 months.

Look how much that changes the risk of this deal for Texas. Prorated over what remains of 2023, plus all of 2024, $22.5 million comes out to an AAV of about $16.9 million. Let’s say Scherzer is just a no. 3 starter anymore. At $43.3 million, you wouldn’t go anywhere near that pitcher. But $16.9 million a year is within a couple million of what Jameson Taillon and Taijuan Walker got this offseason. A pitcher like Scherzer at that salary is a bargain.

The Rangers continue to make a mockery of the scorched-earth rebuild process. They haven’t made the playoffs since 2016, sure, but they just decided to pivot to contending out of nowhere with the Seager/Semien signings, and within two years, abracadabra, they’re in first place again and gaining momentum. Building a winning baseball team is sometimes just a matter of the owner wanting it badly enough.

No owner wants it more, or has the financial might to turn will into reality, than Cohen. Faced with the Mets’ current predicament, most owners would either enter a state of denial and double down on a minute chance of contending, or view contracts like Scherzer’s as a liability. Cohen apparently views it as a sunk cost.

In a deal like this it’s customary for the selling team to retain some salary. I’m reminded of another deadline trade for a future Hall of Famer in the second-to-last year of his contract: the Justin Verlander trade of 2017. In that deal, the Ilitch children — hardly the most freespending of owners — sent $16 million to Houston in order to grease the skids. If they could do that, surely Cohen wouldn’t mind doing the same.

In the end, he did even better. And rather than using this trade to dump the highest salary in baseball and pocket the savings, Cohen spent $35.7 million, give or take, to buy a new co-top prospect for his farm system. And the $22.5 million they did save will probably be reinvested in the team this offseason. If the Mets want to replace Scherzer on the free agent market, $22.5 million will get them most of the way to an Aaron Nola or Julio Urías. (Or, as the baseball world quakes in contemplation of such a thing, a little less than halfway to Shohei Ohtani.)

Both the Rangers and Mets have improved their short- or medium-term outlooks with this trade. A contending team that cares about winning went out and traded prospects for short-term help. A team that’s having a bad year but wants to bounce back made a trade to improve the upper levels of the farm system, and shelled out a little extra money in order to get as much help as possible. On both ends, this trade is the result of an urgent need to win.





Michael is a writer at FanGraphs. Previously, he was a staff writer at The Ringer and D1Baseball, and his work has appeared at Grantland, Baseball Prospectus, The Atlantic, ESPN.com, and various ill-remembered Phillies blogs. Follow him on Twitter, if you must, @MichaelBaumann.

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speedy
8 months ago

When some sites were describing the Angels Giolito trade as a blockbuster I didn’t really agree. This is a blockbuster. And despite the freespending reputation, the Rangers payroll is only 20 mil more than the Angels so they spent wisely in spite of DeGrom’s injury.

fjtorres
8 months ago
Reply to  speedy

The payroll may not be even that high if they got any kind of (partial?) insurance on DeGrom.

TKDCmember
8 months ago
Reply to  fjtorres

Oh boy if I were an insurance agent and the Rangers called about deGrom I can guarantee the phone would be split in two with how aggressively I’d hang up.

MRDXolmember
8 months ago
Reply to  speedy

Really just in name recognition, though? Giolito and Old Scherzer aren’t terribly far apart. Gio’s been a little better and healthier to-date in ‘23, but Scherzer’s projections RoS are a little rosier. They are both 2.5ish WAR starters, albeit with recent-ish histories of being much better than that. But also both with real reasons to think they may not return to that previous level of performance.

The prospects each returned are ranked quite closely together, too: #55 for Acuña and #61 for Quero. Based on the players involved in each, they’re remarkably similar.

cartermember
8 months ago
Reply to  MRDXol

Ehh, I know this isn’t an ERA site, but Scherzer has had an ERA that began with a 2 and had a second number less than 5 last two years. Matter of fact if we go back a decade he has 0 full seasons where the ERA doesn’t start with a 2. He had 2020 which wasn’t a full season, and then this year, where it almost assuredly won’t start with a 2, but again, that is why I said full seasons. Now is Scherzer regressing? Yes, probably. But I think people are underselling him. He is closer to what he has been the last decade than he is to what he has done this season. He is unlikely to be the mid 2 era guy he has been for the last decade, but if I was a betting man, and I am, I’d take the under on 3.5 era for rest of contract. I get that his K’s are down, his walks are up, but if I had to pick a guy in the MLB to rattle off a 30ip scoreless streak besides Gallen (because he does those things often somehow) he’d be my pick.

sadtrombonemember
8 months ago
Reply to  speedy

Nah, this isn’t a blockbuster. This is just a normal deadline trade. We’re just so desperate for news it seems like it.

With so many teams having a shot at the playoffs and so many teams placing a premium on prospects the excuses for not making a deal get higher every year. The only time we see blockbusters are when a team is obviously going nowhere but haven’t already stripped the team to the bone, like the Nationals were when they traded off Soto, Scherzer, and Turner. There aren’t any teams who look like that now. The White Sox would be if they hadn’t already done that exact same thing so recently, but if they’re not trading Cease or Robert I don’t see anyone moving that would get an earth shaking return.

sadtrombonemember
8 months ago
Reply to  sadtrombone

Like, who are the sellers here? The Mets and Cardinals are, selectively, but they both definitely plan to compete in 2024. The Tigers are tired of rebuilding, so anyone with more than 2 years of team control isn’t going anywhere. The Pirates are also sick of rebuilding; in theory Mitch Keller is available, I guess, but it would have to be an enormous haul. The White Sox have told teams that Robert and Cease are off-limits.

The Cubs raised their playoff odds from 20% to 33% in two days, so they’re firmly in the “not selling” camp. The Padres still have a very good team and Seidler likes keeping his guys (often on very expensive contracts). They also have about a 33% of making the playoffs, even with the season they’ve had so far.

The Rockies, A’s, Nationals, and Royals are the four worst teams in the league, and the roster is totally barren of stars except for Bobby Witt, who isn’t going anywhere. The A’s best healthy player with any team control is Ryan Noda, who was a Rule 5 pick this past offseason. Jeimer Candelario is good, maybe a star, but is a rental. The Rockies’ best healthy player is a guy hitting at about league average at third base.

Unless a team decides to absolutely blow away the White Sox for Cease or Robert, or the Pirates for Keller, or a team is packaging 2-4 players at a time to juice the return, I don’t see a ton of blockbuster deals coming up.

mariodegenzgz
8 months ago
Reply to  sadtrombone

McMahon would have pretty good value. He’s a league average hitter and superb fielding 3B signed for the rest of his prime at a reasonable salary, a 2-3 WAR player. Also pretty durable. He also should be traded because the Rox are at least 2-4 years away from doing anything remotely competitive, especially with their brutal run of injuries to SPs.

McMahon is not totally likely to remain productive by the time they’re ready to compete again (I’d give it a 50/50), but there’s no way Rockies are gonna trade him when his value is high because he’s too well liked by the org, aka Bud Black, Monfort and the rest of the decisionmakers.

Like with Kyle Freeland, Mac is gonna be an everyday player until he literally can’t play anymore, he’s an org darling by now. The Freeland thing is its own deal, obviously.

Last edited 8 months ago by mariodegenzgz
sadtrombonemember
8 months ago
Reply to  mariodegenzgz

He’s fine. He’s not going to bring back a blockbuster package.

cartermember
8 months ago
Reply to  sadtrombone

Candelario isn’t a star. Agree with the rest, though.

speedy
8 months ago
Reply to  speedy

I stand by my blockbuster assessment. A few key differences from the Angels trade: Yes he’s not the same as before, but Verlander last year didn’t look great in the regular season either but kicked into gear in the playoffs. Experience does count. He’s there for next year too and isn’t just a short term rental. Yeah it’s name recognition too but could you imagine the buzz if he played with Ohtani? And if they could’ve held out for this trade instead wouldn’t that have proven to Ohtani that they’re in it to win it this year and next? But maybe the Angels don’t seem to attract guys willing to drop a no trade clause or could convince him to stay next year regardless. I don’t know.

maguromember
8 months ago
Reply to  speedy

I’m confused. Verlander won the CYA last year. How did he not look great in the regular season?

sbf21
8 months ago
Reply to  speedy

How odd. Yours is the second comment I’ve seen today saying that Verlander wasn’t very good during the regular season. Are you sure? Because I think he won the Cy Young award last year.

Last edited 8 months ago by sbf21
cartermember
8 months ago
Reply to  sbf21

Yea I mean 1.75 era 0.83 whip is meh at best?