Major League Baseball's trade deadline is just over six weeks away. This year's deadline has added significance, as an offseason rule changethat followed the July 31 cutoff point. Teams will need to decide quickly if and who they're buying and selling over the next month-plus. Rumors are part of the process, with teams leaking information to coerce others into action. Occasionally we put a rumor to the stress test and offer a verdict on whether we think it's substantive or merely smoke. We call it the Rumor Buy or Sell.
The rumor: According to Washington Nationals general manager Mike Rizzo, the club does not intend to trade ace Max Scherzer. Here's part of what Rizzo told the Athletic's Ken Rosenthal:
"We're certainly not thinking about that right now. We control the best pitcher in baseball for 2 1/2 more years – three playoff runs. He's extremely well-priced. If you look at his contract, he's extremely, extremely well-priced. We would have to command something that would be franchise-altering to consider moving him."
Some relatively strong words, given most executives would offer prattle about how "there are no untouchables, just some who are more touchable than others," or remind fans that their job "means keeping one eye on the present and one on the future," or … -- well, you get the point.
Background: The Nationals are the biggest team-level disappointment in baseball. Some, including this author, had them picked to win the National League pennant. Instead, the Nationals entered Monday 33-38 and in fourth place in the division. The Nationals have played better in June, winning nine of 14, yet remain 8.5 games behind the Atlanta Braves and six games behind the Philadelphia Phillies, whom they'll begin a four-game set with on Monday.
This week could be pivotal for the Nationals in determining their deadline direction. After those four games with the Phillies, they'll play the Braves in a three-game series over the weekend. The Nationals are hosting each of those seven games, which theoretically gives them an edge.
Scherzer, meanwhile, is indeed one of the best pitchers in baseball. He's finished fifth or better in Cy Young Award voting every fall since 2013, and appears on pace to extend that streak later this year. It's fair to wonder how much longer he'll be able to maintain this level of dominance given he'll turn 35 later this month and has logged more than 2,200 big-league innings to date.
The Nationals hope it's at least for two more seasons: Scherzer is owed $70 million through 2021, and that doesn't include the future deferred payments he's owed by the club.
Verdict: Buy. We don't think the Nationals are likely to entertain a full-scale teardown -- not yet, anyway -- and that's what would be required for Washington to part with Scherzer.
Our reasoning begins with the Nationals owners, the Lerners. If you recall, the Lerners Bryce Harper to the Houston Astros. Another disappointing start to the season may have changed their minds, but we're guessing they would reject any scenario in which another one of the franchise's most recognizable faces would be heading out of town -- especially at a time when Anthony Rendon's future is uncertain.
Signing Scherzer has proved to be a masterstroke -- one orchestrated by the Lerners. He's become the face of the franchise, as well as the contemporary go-to evidence that blockbuster pitching signings can work out. That last part may as well be Washington's organizational ethos, considering they owe Stephen Strasburg and Patrick Corbin each more than $100 million through the 2023 season. The Nationals have invested a lot in this rotation, and stripping away Scherzer at this point would seem to necessitate a complete shift in the braintrust's thinking.
Even if the Nationals wanted to trade Scherzer, it's possible they wouldn't find a good deal.
Teams have prioritized profits to winning in recent years, to the point where Scherzer's contract would serve as the focal point. The Nationals have no incentive to outright salary-dump him, but other parties would likely require they eat a large chunk of his deal before shaking hands.
Think of it this way. Scherzer's contract counts for nearly $30 million in baseball's luxury-tax calculations. As it stands, only six teams are either over or within $30 million of the line. That would seem to be a good sign for the Nationals -- most of the league would be able to squeeze Scherzer in without paying penalties -- but doesn't it say something when 80 percent of the league is so fearful of approaching the line that they're more than $30 million away from it?
The best-case scenario would see the Los Angeles Angels or, more likely, the Texas Rangers step up and flex their financial might in an effort to close the gap between themselves and the Houston Astros. But, again, would either team be willing to give up good prospects and their precious financial flexibility at this point? Doubtful.
So, what we have here is a franchise that doesn't want to move Scherzer and a market that's wholly unlikely to change its mind. Maybe something happens this or next winter, but we have a feeling Scherzer will remain in D.C. for most (if not all) of the time that remains on his deal.