For many reasons, the Washington Nationals could not revel in their 2019 World Series championship as much as they would have liked in 2020. The pandemic forced MLB to shut down for months, and when they did play, there were no fans in the stands. There was no extravagant banner-raising or ring ceremony. What a bummer.
On the field, the 2020 Nationals were quite forgettable. They finished tied for last place in the NL East at 26-34, and they did that even though Juan Soto led the league in batting average (.351), on-base percentage (.490), and slugging percentage (.695). Trea Turner had a season that earned him MVP votes as well, and yet Washington was still a bottom-tier team.
"We weren't able to replicate the success we had last year into this year. It's just the way it goes. Everybody has a hand in it. Everybody needs to reflect upon what they did -- and didn't -- do well and try to make those adjustments going into next year. That's just life in the big leagues. When you don't win, there's going to be a lot of attention to why you didn't win. You're always going to have that pressure to perform," the three-time Cy Young Award winner said.
"I'm sure there's people that are going to look at this and say, 'Hey, it's only 60 games.. ...' But that's not my mentality," Scherzer continued. "I came into this year fully prepared to win. And we didn't win."
To date, it has been a very quiet offseason for the Nationals, who have reportedly kicked the tires on Kris Bryant and DJ LeMahieu, but have not yet made a notable addition to their MLB roster. Their shopping list is long. GM Mike Rizzo needs a corner outfielder to replace Adam Eaton, a first baseman, a second or third baseman, a catcher, a back-end starter, and bullpen help.
On top of that, Rizzo must deal with Scherzer's looming free agency. Scherzer's seven-year contract expires next offseason, and while an extension seems likely, it is not a given. Maybe the Nationals will have another poor season in 2021, pushing Scherzer to sign elsewhere so he can win again before he retires. Who's to say he won't decline and the club will want to walk away?
As unlikely as it may seem, trading the 36-year-old Scherzer should be a consideration this offseason. He's popped up in trade rumors at various points in recent years, including after the team's 19-31 start in 2019, so the idea that Scherzer could be on the trade block is not completely insane. He's been there before. Chances are he'll be there again. That's the business.
Does it make sense to trade Scherzer? Well, it depends. On a many number of things. To that end, I will now present the cases for and against the Nationals trading Scherzer this winter. Keep in mind there is nothing wrong with listened to trade inquires. Rizzo would not be doing his job if he didn't at least hear out the clubs asking about Scherzer.
The case for trading Scherzer
Cleveland is expected to trade Francisco Lindor at some point because it can't afford him long term. The case for trading him is very straightforward: either lose him as a free agent next offseason and get nothing but one stinkin' draft pick in return, or trade him for multiple pieces that can help the club remain in contention moving forward. That's an obvious decision.
Trading Scherzer is not so obvious. The Nationals can afford to retain him beyond 2021 even with the pandemic shrinking payrolls around the league, and they have the core of a contending team. Sometimes it's better to part ways with a player a year too early rather than a year too late though, and that's one of three arguments for trading Scherzer now.
1. Scherzer may be declining. Let's start with Scherzer himself. He's a Hall of Famer in my eyes, though getting to 200 wins (he's at 175) and 3,000 strikeouts (2,784) would help his case with some voters. He's one of the best pitchers of his generation, clearly. What Scherzer has done and what Scherzer will do are different things, however, and the latter matters most to the 2021 Nationals.
During the short and unusual 2020 season, Scherzer performed at a level that would be a career year for most pitchers, but was his worst year in quite a while. His numbers:
- 3.74 ERA was his highest since 2012
- 3.46 FIP was his highest since 2011
- 1.38 WHIP was his highest ever
- 31.2 percent strikeout rate was his lowest since 2015
- 7.8 percent walk rate was his highest since 2010
- 1.34 HR/9 was his highest since 2011
Scherzer dealt with a nagging hamstring issue throughout the season, and last year he was hampered by a back issue in August and the neck issue that scratched him from Game 5 of the World Series. His arm is healthy -- Scherzer has been very durable in his career to date -- but other parts of his body are acting up. It comes with the territory at this age. I speak from experience.
Beyond the surface stats, there are other worrisome indicators in Scherzer's performance. His 14.7 percent swing-and-miss rate was comfortably below recent seasons (16.2 percent from 2018-19), and his average exit velocity allowed crept up to 88.5 mph. That is just about a full mile-an-hour higher than his previous career worst (87.6 mph in 2019). More hard contact led to this:
|Expected batting average||Expected slugging percentage|
Statcast calculates expected batting average and expected slugging percentage using launch angle and exit velocity and all that, and the expected stats match up well with the actual stats -- Scherzer allowed a .260 batting average and .424 slugging percentage in 2020. He allowed more hard contact and the results reflect that. He wasn't unlucky.
Of course, Scherzer wasn't bad in 2020 by any means, he just wasn't his typically elite self. At age 36 and with nearly 2,500 big-league innings on his arm, age-related decline is a concern. Father Time comes for everyone eventually. Roy Halladay and Cliff Lee were aces at 34 and done at 35. Justin Verlander was dominant at 36, then his arm gave out at 37. It can happen quick.
There's a chance, possibly a very good one, Scherzer's days as a key contributor on a contender are over, and those chances grow with each passing year. Scherzer has aged remarkably well to this point. There is no guarantee that will continue, however, and some red flags already exist. This offseason might be Washington's last chance to trade him for something of value.
2. The Nationals aren't very good. At least not on paper. FanGraphs projections have them firmly as a middle-of-the-pack team in 2021, one that is much closer to fourth place than first. According to ZiPS, they have five players projected for at least 3 WAR in 2021 (Scherzer, Soto, Turner, Patrick Corbin, Stephen Strasburg) and only five others projects for at least 1 WAR. It's a top-heavy roster.
The lack of depth and "stars and scrubs" nature of the roster leaves the Nationals vulnerable to injury and underperformance. That's what undid them in 2020. Strasburg got hurt and Corbin and Scherzer were merely good rather than great, and the team finished in last place. I mean, Soto and Turner had those years, and the Nationals still only went 26-34. Yikes.
Projections aren't everything, of course, but FanGraphs projects the current Nationals roster to get bottom 10 production at five of the eight position player spots (not counting DH):
- Catcher: 22nd in MLB
- First base: 29th in MLB
- Second base: 27th in MLB
- Third base: 28th in MLB
- Left field: 23rd in MLB (with Soto moving to right field)
The Nationals were pretty bad in 2020, they've yet to make any upgrades to the roster this offseason, so they project to be pretty bad again in 2021. It passes the sniff test. Just look over the roster and it's obvious the Nationals lack viable options at too many positions on the field.
Truth be told, Rizzo may not be able to address all the weakness on the roster in one offseason, especially if payroll comes down. He needs help all over the field and needs to rebuild depth, which was lacking this past season. Can he turn Scherzer into, say, a young infielder and a starter? That strengthens the roster and possibly frees up money to address other needs.
Another thing to keep in mind: Washington's farm system is not highly regarded. Baseball America ranked it 28th in baseball after the 2021 draft, so the big-league roster is top heavy and the farm system doesn't have much help to offer. The Nationals badly need an infusion of young talent to stay relevant. Scherzer can help net that young talent. Keep him and you're no lock to contend, and then he could walk as a free agent next offseason.
The Nationals are stuck in a division with the powerhouse Braves, Steve Cohen's Mets, the up-and-coming Marlins, and a Phillies team that should be better than it is. There is a lot of ground to make up, Scherzer or no Scherzer, and trading him now does not necessarily mean throwing in the towel on 2021. It just means reallocating resources with an eye on long-term contention.
3. The market lacks quality starters. The free agent market is short on quality starters beyond Trevor Bauer, and Lance Lynn has already been dealt, removing a top trade candidate. The Reds are reportedly listening on Sonny Gray, partly because the market is starved for impact starters. Conditions are ripe for trading a starting pitcher for good young players.
Even at age 36, I have little doubt contenders will line up to trade for one year of Scherzer. There's no long-term risk and he can be a difference-maker on a postseason club. Scherzer can swing a division race or a postseason series all by himself. He's an all-time bulldog too, and there are absolutely zero concerns about how he'll respond to a pressure situation or a pennant race.
It's simple supply and demand. The demand for pitching always exceeds the supply, and that is especially true this offseason. Think of all the clubs seeking starters: Angels, Blue Jays, Giants, Mets, Padres, Phillies, Yankees, so on and so forth. Put Scherzer on the market and there will be a bidding war, and that's good news for Rizzo as he tries to maximize the return.
The case against trading Scherzer
With a star player, keeping him is always the easiest solution, especially when you can envision yourself as a contender in the near future, which the Nationals can. It's very difficult to come out ahead when trading a star player, especially when the return is built around prospects. Here are three reasons the Nationals should keep Scherzer heading into 2021, the final year on his contract.
1. A postseason spot is within reach. The New Year is right around the corner and we still don't know enough (or anything) about the rules that will be in place for 2021, though that's another conversation for another time. There's a pretty good chance there will be an expanded postseason field next year, however, be it 14 teams or 16 teams or however many. MLB is pushing for it.
The Nationals, even with holes all over the roster, aren't that far away from postseason contention. The Marlins went 10-4 in seven-inning games and 18-23 in nine-inning games in 2020. Are they really ready to contend, or was it just a fluky 60-game span? The Pirates and Rockies are no threats, maybe not the Diamondbacks either. Competition for expanded postseason spots is limited.
Washington doesn't need to blow it out with Bryant or LeMahieu to be a contender, though players of that caliber will obviously help. Lower-cost additions like Kolten Wong and Joc Pederson represent significant upgrades over their current options. The Nationals have stars already and getting stars is the hard part. They only need to strengthen the supporting cast and that's an easier task.
Just get into the postseason and you have a chance to win, and, as we saw in 2019, the Nationals are a dangerous matchup in a short postseason series. The Scherzer-Strasburg-Corbin trio atop the rotation is formidable. Great pitching doesn't guarantee postseason success, we see that every single year, but it sure does help. Washington is built well for October.
Scherzer carries some risk given his age and recent injury issues, no doubt, but odds are it will be easier to win with him than without him in 2021, especially in the postseason. Look beyond surplus value and focus on the real world impact of an ace, and it's hard to see how trading Scherzer improves the Nationals next year. He makes them a better team.
2. Scherzer has no-trade protection. Scherzer has 10-and-5 full no-trade protection as a player who's spent at least 10 years in the big leagues and the last five years with the same team, so he controls his destiny. If he doesn't want to go anywhere, he doesn't have to. That's a potentially significant hurdle. It's a possible dealbreaker and could render this entire discussion moot.
The no-trade protection also gives Scherzer leverage. He's in position to demand something in return for accepting a trade, such as a contract extension. Verlander inked a two-year deal worth $66 million last year, when he was the same age Scherzer is now. In no way would it be unreasonable for Scherzer to say "give me the Verlander deal or I'm staying in Washington."
So, not only do the 10-and-5 rights give Scherzer the ability to block any trade, it allows him to seek concessions. For a trade to happen, the Nationals have to find a team Scherzer is willing to join, negotiate a sufficient trade package, and hope the other team can work out whatever concessions Scherzer wants for agreeing to a trade. There are a lot of hoops to jump through.
Another hoop is the money remaining on Scherzer's current contract. He has one year remaining on his deal and is still owed ... checks notes ... $120 million. True story. Here's what the Nationals owe Scherzer:
- 2021: $15 million signing bonus payment ($35 million salary is fully deferred)
- 2022-28: $15 million per year in deferred salary payments without interest ($105 million total)
The differentiation between "signing bonus" and "salary" is important because only salary is prorated. Scherzer is getting his $15 million signing bonus payment no matter what in 2021. Even if the pandemic wipes out the entire season (please no), he is owed that $15 million. (I'm not sure how proration works with deferred salary and I'll let that be someone else's problem.)
Any Scherzer trade would require the Nationals and the other team to work out the money. If I'm trading for Scherzer, do I owe him the $15 million signing bonus? Am I responsible for the $35 million in salary? When do I pay out those deferrals? There is zero chance -- zero -- another team will assume all $120 million, but the money is something the two sides will have to work through.
Scherzer's legacy is secure. He's won three Cy Youngs, a World Series ring, and made a fortune. He's accomplished just about everything a player could dream of accomplishing in this sport. This late in his career, Scherzer may not want to relocate and have to ingrain himself in a new organization. His preference may be remaining in Washington, even if down years are on the horizon.
That said, Scherzer is a competitor -- he is a ferocious competitor bordering on maniacal, and I mean that as a compliment -- and if he doesn't see the Nationals as a true contender in 2021, he may be willing to accept a trade and go be a mercenary somewhere for a year before free agency. Heck, maybe the Nationals could trade Scherzer and re-sign him next winter. Not impossible.
There are just so many things that have to fall into place for a trade to happen because Scherzer holds all the cards. And, on top of that, the Nationals would have to deal with the fan backlash. A team trading its ultra-popular ace -- Scherzer is a franchise icon, truly -- just one year removed from a World Series title would not be popular. All that could be enough to stand in the way of a deal.
3. Will the return really be that good? Good question! Let's say the Nationals find a team Scherzer is willing to join, the two sides work through the money, and Scherzer and the other team come to an agreement that gets him to waive his no-trade protection. What then is that team giving the Nationals to complete the trade? It has to be worthwhile, otherwise Washington will keep him.
Aces are rarely traded one full year prior to free agency -- they're usually traded multiple years prior to free agency or as rentals at the trade deadline -- but one just was: Lance Lynn. He's pitched at an ace level the last two seasons and the Rangers traded him and the one year remaining on his contract to the White Sox two weeks ago. In return, they received:
- RHP Dane Dunning. MLB.com's No. 98 prospect in baseball. "He fits right in as a dependable middle-of-the-rotation option and should be able to handle that role for years to come," says their scouting report.
- LHP Avery Weems. A non-top-30 prospect in Chicago's farm system prior to the trade, according to Baseball America. He is considered a prospect on the rise, however.
As good as he's been the last two years -- and he's been very good -- Lynn does not have Scherzer's track record. He's also significantly cheaper. Lynn is owed $8 million in salary in 2021, or about half the $15 million in actual cash Scherzer is owed next year (a little more than Drew Smyly money). That salary made Lynn very desirable amid the pandemic. Every team could afford him.
Here are a few notable aces traded as rentals at the deadline in recent years. Rentals are more relevant to Scherzer than pitchers with multiple years of control because, at the end of the day, you're acquiring the pitcher for one postseason race and one postseason race only.
- RHP Johnny Cueto, Reds: Traded to Royals for a top-100 prospect (Brandon Finnegan) and two secondary pieces (John Lamb and Cody Reed).
- RHP Yu Darvish, Rangers: Traded to Dodgers for a top-100 prospect (Willie Calhoun) and two secondary pieces (A.J. Alexy and Brendan Davis).
- LHP David Price, Tigers: Traded to Blue Jays for a top-100 prospect (Daniel Norris) and two secondary pieces (Matthew Boyd and Jairo Labourt).
Between those three trades and the more recent Lynn trade, the asking price for one postseason of an ace is one top-100 prospect and one or two secondary pieces. Will that really be enough for the Nationals to part with Scherzer? If a Dunning or a Norris or a Calhoun or a Boyd type prospect is the best you can do as the headliner in a Scherzer trade, then why bother? And given their current roster, wouldn't the Nationals want MLB-ready players rather than prospects in return? That's a hard sell.
It's (much) easier to see the Nationals contending with Scherzer in 2021 than it was the Rangers with Lynn, and it's easier to see the Nationals extending Scherzer than it was the Reds with Cueto, the Rangers with Darvish, and the Tigers with Price back in the day. Washington has some leverage in trade talks because they don't have to trade Scherzer. Keeping him is a viable strategy.
Another thing to consider: a contract extension. Say Scherzer leverages his no-trade protection into a Verlander-esque two-year extension. Is his new team trading for three years of Scherzer, or one year of Scherzer and negotiating the extension as a separate transaction? You can be sure the Nationals would want a return commensurate with three years of Scherzer, not one. The other team won't see it that way. That's another obstacle.
It's easy to look at Scherzer, a future Hall of Famer and ace of a recent World Series winner, and say some team will have to give up their first and second born for him. Something similar to what the Pirates gave up for Chris Archer, for example. Except it doesn't work like that. Scherzer is 36, expensive, and showing some signs of decline. Plus there are other complicating factors. I'm not sure his trade value is sky high. (Also, the Archer trade was an anomaly that shouldn't be used as the baseline for anything.)
If the Nationals were bad -- I mean legitimately and obviously awful rather than the fringe postseason team they are on paper -- then yeah, trading Scherzer right now for whatever you can get would make sense. He'd have little short or long-term value to the franchise. That is not the case though. Scherzer has significant value to the 2021 Nationals. Value that transcends what he does on the field.
I don't expect the Nationals to trade Scherzer -- I think they're far more likely to extend him than trade him -- and I say keep him but listen to offers. That's a cop out, I know, but it's the correct answer. The Nationals should keep him and work aggressively to patch holes on the roster so they can contend while they have Scherzer and Turner, while Corbin and Strasburg are in their primes (or close to it), and while Soto is doing this. I don't see how you could have a 22-year-old generational hitter like Soto and decide to trade your ace and franchise icon, no matter how old and expensive. Go for it.
That said, Rizzo would not be doing his job if he didn't at least listen to offers for Scherzer. You never know when a team will come in and blow you away. What if the Yankees offer, say, Gleyber Torres and Deivi Garcia? That four years of a star infielder and six years of a young starter with impact potential. I'm not saying Torres and Garcia would definitely get a trade done, but Rizzo would have to at least stop and think about it, right? It doesn't hurt to listen. Plan to keep him, but listen.