With Scherzer, Mets Go To the Max To Land a Marquee Free Agent

For all of the sound and fury coming from Steve Cohen last week upon being spurned by Noah Syndergaard and Steven Matz, the Mets’ owner has put his money where his mouth is since then. After signing a trio of midmarket position players — outfielders Starling Marte and Mark Canha, plus infielder Eduardo Escobar — over the Thanksgiving holiday weekend, New York landed a marquee hurler on Monday, agreeing to terms with Max Scherzer on a three-year, $130 million deal.

The contract will pay Scherzer $43.33 million annually for his age 37–39 seasons, marking this as quite a high-risk move. The deal, which includes an opt-out after 2023 as well as a full no-trade clause, is a record-setter, with an average annual value 20% higher than the $36 million per year won by the Yankees’ Gerrit Cole, the previous standard-bearer. And — in a bit that’s sure to be schadenfreude-licious for a certain segment of the Mets’ fan base — while Scherzer is pulling down that massive salary, he’ll also be receiving the first three of seven $15 million deferred payments from the Nationals during the span of his contract with the Mets.

The move comes as something of a surprise given that Scherzer refused to consider waiving his 10-and-5 rights for a potential deal to the Mets in July. On top of that, the Dodgers, to whom he was ultimately dealt, were presumed to have the inside track on retaining the 37-year-old righty given their status as contenders, their seemingly limitless resources, and a sense of unfinished business after coming up short in their quest to defend their 2020 title. But whether it was because Los Angeles wouldn’t go beyond two years or because Scherzer, who purchased a mansion in Jupiter, Florida in 2020, preferred a return to the East Coast, New York was able to close a deal ahead of the December 1 expiration of the current Collective Bargaining Agreement and the lockout that’s likely to follow.

In the final year of his seven-year, $210 million contract with the Nationals — perhaps the most fully realized free-agent mega-deal to date, featuring two Cy Young awards, two no-hitters, a championship, 39.7 WAR, and probably a curly W on the cap of his Hall of Fame plaque — Scherzer pitched like a man in search of more hardware. In his first nine starts after being dealt to the Dodgers, he posted astounding numbers (0.78 ERA, 1.36 FIP, 36.6% strikeout rate), and on September 12, during that run, he became the 19th pitcher in history to collect 3,000 career strikeouts, doing so while taking a perfect game into the eighth inning. Even after a couple of bumpy starts at the end of the regular season, he finished second in the NL in ERA (2.46), strikeouts (236), strikeout rate (34.1%) and K-BB% (28.8%), third in WAR (5.4), and fourth in FIP (2.96) in 179.1 innings. In the year’s Cy Young voting, he placed third behind Corbin Burnes and Zack Wheeler, receiving six first-place votes.

Even so, those bumpy starts turned out to be an ominous portent of things to come. Scherzer failed to complete five innings in two of his three postseason starts, including the NL Wild Card Game. After closing out the Giants in the ninth inning of Game 5 of the Division Series, he admitted that he was battling arm fatigue, and was able to make only one NLCS start; he could only watch as a similarly gassed Walker Buehler struggled on three days of rest in Game 6 against the Braves. Still, Scherzer’s problem was believed to be nothing more than arm fatigue — understandable given his 128.2-inning workload increase relative to 2020.

Given the possibility of remaining with the perennially contending Dodgers, it does rate as somewhat shocking that Scherzer chose a team that went 77–85 in 2021, has finished below .500 in four of the past five seasons, and has been outside the playoff picture since 2016. The Mets did spend 114 days with at least a share of first place between April 13 and August 13 of this past season, but mounting injuries and dysfunction led to a 22–37 record after the July 30 trade deadline.

The most prominent of those injuries was that of Jacob deGrom, who pitched to an ungodly 1.08 ERA and 1.24 FIP in 92 innings before forearm troubles felled him in early July. The fireballing 33-year-old righty, who underwent Tommy John surgery in 2011, was later revealed to have suffered a partially torn ulnar collateral ligament, but according to both the pitcher and team president Sandy Alderson, the ligament has since healed. If the Mets are to be believed, he’s expected to be ready to start the 2022 season.

Scherzer’s presence not only offers some amount of insurance if deGrom misses more time and/or opts out after the 2022 season, but also the tantalizing prospect of providing one of the game’s great one-two rotation punches if both are healthy. Based on how things stand now, behind them in the rotation will be Taijuan Walker, Carlos Carrasco, and Tylor Megill, with David Peterson and Jordan Yamamoto offering additional depth. The chances of the team re-signing Marcus Stroman, who has expressed interest in returning but who is also drawing attention from other teams, may have taken a hit, particularly with the payroll now at $268 million according to Roster Resource, or $272 million for Competitive Balance Tax purposes, though no tax threshold is currently in place for next season as the CBA expires. It’s not a given, though, that the Mets are done spending, even having committed over $250 million to their four new free agents.

As to what Scherzer’s performance under the deal might look like, here’s Dan Szymborski’s ZiPS projection:

ZiPS Projection – Max Scherzer
2022 12 7 0 3.08 28 28 169.3 128 58 24 43 231 134 3.9
2023 10 6 0 3.25 25 25 149.3 120 54 23 38 196 126 3.1
2024 10 7 0 3.44 25 25 146.3 122 56 23 38 187 119 2.8

That’s a total of 9.8 WAR for the three seasons, or an average of $13.27 million per projected win, which is to say that the Mets appear to be paying quite a premium for Scherzer’s services. That said, there’s a potential for high reward to go with the high risk: He produced 13.7 WAR from 2019 to ’21, and that’s without adjusting for the pandemic-shortened 2020 season; if he maxes out to something closer to 15, the contract won’t be far out of line at all. That 13.7 WAR, by the way, ranked third in the majors during that span behind only Cole (14.2) and Wheeler (13.8). For all of that, it’s worth noting that since 2008, only four pitchers in their age-35 seasons or older have produced 5.0 WAR or more in a single campaign, including Scherzer in ’21; the others are Justin Verlander (’18 and ’19), Zack Greinke and Charlie Morton (both in ’19).

As for the Dodgers, this leaves them with another question mark for their rotation at a time when it’s unclear whether Clayton Kershaw will return. Hampered by his own forearm troubles, the 33-year-old lefty threw just 15.1 innings after July 3 and missed all of the postseason due a September setback. He’s now he’s a free agent, which leaves a rotation with only Buehler and Julio Urías written in ink, and Tony Gonsolin, David Price, and Andrew Heaney — a trio that combined for just 2.2 WAR in 2021 — vying to round it out.

Meanwhile, one other top free-agent starter has come off the table in the pre-lockout feeding frenzy, as Robbie Ray is nearing agreement on a five-year, $115 million deal with the Mariners. Combine that with the previous signings of Kevin Gausman (Blue Jays), Eduardo Rodriguez (Tigers), and Syndergaard (Angels), and suddenly five of the top six starting pitchers from our Top 50 Free Agents list — all but Stroman — have disappeared from the shelves before the calendar has flipped to December. And if the Dodgers were planning to fold their savings from not signing Scherzer into retaining Corey Seager, well, the shortstop came off the table mere minutes after this article was initially published, as he agreed to a 10-year, $325 million deal with the Rangers.

For now, at least, the Dodgers’ loss is the Mets’ gain. Scherzer will have to keep pitching like a frontline starter to live up to this big pact, though he’s proven before that he can do so. When combined with the additions of Marte, Canha, and Escobar, this move has given them a head start on their NL East competitors — and pretty much the rest of the NL as well — when it comes to holiday shopping, with little time left before the store closes.

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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8 months ago

The concepts of “surprise” and “shocking” seem much more applicable to a 37 year old pitcher getting $130M than the idea that any player would choose an offer of $130M over a lesser one. You can pretty easily see how everything flows from there.

This is is a lot of money. A LOT of money. I don’t see any mystery here.

Ozzie Albies
8 months ago
Reply to  sadtrombone

Scherzer better make sure to read the fine print, that he really is getting $43 million every 6 months, not $43 million every 6 years 🙁

8 months ago
Reply to  sadtrombone

No mystery.
Just a 30% overpay.
Money talks and $43M a year yells.

8 months ago
Reply to  fjtorres

A bit of math: $43M AAV + $15M deferred payment is $58M.
More than the 2021 payrolls of Miami, Pittsburgh, Cleveland, and Baltimore.
Food for thought.
We’ll have to revisit this in 11 months.