Likely suitors for Max Scherzer in free agency

With the regular season behind us and the postseason in full swing, we're taking a close look at some of the most prominent players eligible for free agency.

Name: Max Scherzer
Position: RHP
Team: Los Angeles Dodgers
Age (as of Opening Day 2022): 37
2021 stats: 15-4, 2.46 ERA, 179 1/3 IP, 236 K, 0.864 WHIP

The right-hander went 92-47 with a 2.80 ERA in his six-plus seasons with Washington, leading the Nationals to the postseason three times. He played an integral role in the club’s 2019 World Series title, the first in Nationals history, becoming one of the most beloved figures in D.C. sports history.

Washington traded Scherzer to the Dodgers this past summer, bolstering Los Angeles’ postseason hopes in an ultra-competitive NL West. The Dodgers fell short of a ninth straight division title, finishing one game behind the Giants, but that gap would have been far wider without Scherzer, who went 7-0 with a 1.98 ERA in 11 starts -- all of them Dodgers victories.

Even at 37, Scherzer is considered the best pitcher available on this year’s free-agent market, and while he is unlikely to land a lengthy deal that will take him deep into his 40s, a three-year contract with a record-setting average annual value (AAV) isn’t out of the question.

The Dodgers were a great fit for Scherzer after his late-July trade, so why wouldn’t Los Angeles use its financial might to keep him in town? Scherzer already has generational wealth, so the idea of signing with a club that will contend for the World Series annually has to be attractive to the 37-year-old. Given the Dodgers’ payroll structure, he won’t have to settle for a club-friendly contract to stay in L.A., which has to be seen as a favorite to sign Scherzer this offseason.

Mike Trout is said to be pushing for the Angels to sign Scherzer, hoping to see his team finally land the ace it has been sorely missing for years. Scherzer has clearly thrived in Southern California, and though he has done well pitching in the National League since joining the Nationals in 2015, the potential for the universal DH might make the AL/NL debate a moot point. Pairing Scherzer with Shohei Ohtani atop the rotation would be appealing, and with roughly $60 million set to come off the payroll, the Angels might have the flexibility to take a run at Scherzer.

It’s never wise to count out the Yankees when it comes to a marquee free agent, and given the uneven nature of New York’s rotation in 2021, adding a proven winner such as Scherzer would help them challenge for the AL East title. Having reset the luxury tax, the Yankees could go on a spending spree this offseason, especially after losing to the rival Red Sox in the AL Wild Card Game. One potential speed bump: the Yankees don’t have much money coming off the payroll, so their offseason moves could depend on how high Hal Steinbrenner is willing to set the budget for 2022.

Boston was reportedly on the list of teams for which Scherzer would have approved a trade this summer, so the Red Sox can’t be discounted in this winter’s sweepstakes. The Sox have roughly $30 million coming off the payroll this offseason. Chris Sale and Nathan Eovaldi are set to lead the rotation in 2022, so adding Scherzer would make the Red Sox one of the clear favorites in the AL.

When the Nationals traded Scherzer to the Dodgers, it brought their successful partnership to a close. Or did it? Scherzer clearly enjoyed his time in Washington, so the idea of him returning to D.C. to finish out his career is hardly far-fetched. But the Nationals are in a rebuilding mode of sorts after trading so many players this summer, making it tough to believe Scherzer would want to return to a team that might not contend for a year or two.

Justin Verlander, Zack Greinke and Carlos Correa are free agents, opening up a wealth of payroll room for the Astros. Houston’s rotation thrived with its young arms this season, but adding Scherzer to lead the group would keep the Astros among the AL elite. Scherzer played for Dusty Baker in Washington for several years; could that help the Astros if they decide to recruit him this winter?

Just as George Steinbrenner could never be dismissed when it came to throwing money at a big-name free agent, Steve Cohen has the type of wealth to overpay for virtually any player he chooses. The Mets watched Scherzer dominate them for years -- he’s 14-5 with a 2.68 ERA against New York, including a 10-2 record and 2.14 ERA at Citi Field -- so they know precisely what kind of impact he can make.

It seemed as though the Padres were set to land Scherzer in a trade this summer before the Dodgers swooped in. Scherzer would likely have approved such a deal, so he’s clearly not averse to the idea of moving a little further south from Los Angeles. Padres GM A.J. Preller tends to be aggressive in the offseason, and if he believes the addition of Scherzer would tilt the power in the NL West, it’s possible he puts on a full-court press to add the ace to the top of San Diego’s rotation.

“Max continues to defy those who doubt him, not to mention the general rules of aging. At 37, he is not only posting 30 starts a year, but producing at an elite level. The deceptive delivery that most anticipated would lead to injury long ago continues to serve him well. He has an above-average four-pitch mix with a plus fastball and swing-and-miss slider. The fastball velocity has remained almost virtually the same with maybe just a slight decline this year. Max is a bulldog who fills up the zone with his entire repertoire and knows how to attack hitters. I believe he will be the most impactful starter acquired or re-signed this offseason, albeit on a shorter-term deal that will likely match his desired length of terms. A team and staff leader who can still get the job done at the front of a contender’s rotation, he will continue to have doubters based on his age. Bet against Max Scherzer at your own peril; that’s not something I would do.”

It seems impossible that Scherzer has gotten better as he’d moved into his late 30s, but that’s precisely what the numbers indicate. Scherzer continues to rank in the top 5 percent in strikeout rate among all starters, the top 10 percent in walk rate and swing-and-miss percentage. He also led MLB in WHIP and hits per nine innings, topped the NL in walks per nine innings and finished second in the league in strikeouts. How long can he continue to dominate as a power pitcher at an age when most hurlers are transforming into crafty veterans?

Few pitchers have dominated at this stage of their career the way Scherzer has, but Randy Johnson and Justin Verlander have been exceptions to the rule. The Big Unit won the NL Cy Young Award in 1999 and 2000 -- his age-35 and age-36 seasons -- then did it again in each of his next two years, going 4-for-4 in Cy Youngs during his four-year, $52.4 million deal with the D-backs, a record for a pitcher at the time. More recently, Verlander won the AL Cy Young Award in 2019 at the age of 36, then signed a two-year, $66 million deal to remain with the Astros. Scherzer could get a third year on his next contract, exceeding the $33 million AAV that Verlander received and possibly passing Gerrit Cole’s $36 million AAV, the highest in history.

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