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What If... the Cardinals Signed Max Scherzer After 2014?

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The 2014-2015 offseason provided a chance for the Cardinals to sign a Cy Young winner and St. Louis native, but they didn’t. What if they had?

MLB: APR 11 Cardinals at Nationals

Our SB Nation peers at Rock M Nation have been running and re-running a What If series initially started by college football wizard Bill Connelly. For instance, Connelly looked at what Mizzou might have looked like if Jeremy Maclin hadn’t injured his knee in 2006. The Cardinals have less heartbreak and shenanigans than Mizzou, but there have been some fascinating “What If...?” scenarios in franchise history. Today, we’ll look at a recent version. What if the Cardinals had signed Max Scherzer when he was a free agent?

Here are the ground rules.

  • We’ll assume Scherzer would have performed the same as a Cardinal as he has in DC.
  • Team payroll will be kept as close to reality in the individual years from 2015 to 2019. We need a little wiggle room for an increase, but with the caveat that it has to be closer the following season.
  • I’m not going to invent trades involving players who were never traded. There’s too much conjecture and it seems unfair, particularly when a potential trade target in one of these fictional deals wasn’t actually traded. There’s no evidence that the potential trade partner was willing to deal that player.
  • Finally, I’ll assume Scherzer’s presumptive deal with the Cardinals is the same as it is with the Nationals. That means our What If Cardinals will sign Scherzer for 7 years and $210M, with $105M of that deferred. For purposes of our payroll, the Cardinals will add $17.1M in 2015; $22.1M from 2016-2018; $37.4M in 2019; $35.9M in 2020; and $34.5M in 2021, per the breakdown at Cot’s.
  • Each player’s adjusted playing time will simply be pro-rated fWAR based on actual results. It’s not ideal, but usually we’re talking about small samples where anything can happen.

2015

Entering the off-season, the Cardinals had Adam Wainwright, Lance Lynn, Shelby Miller, John Lackey, and Michael Wacha in the rotation. They had Carlos Martinez in the bullpen but ready for the rotation. Jaime Garcia was rehabbing, while Marco Gonzales and Tyler Lyons provided depth. Wacha and Garcia were health-related question marks, and Martinez was slightly murky because of a lack of a track record. Since the Cardinals still had a massive hole in right field, and extraordinary pitching depth, we’ll assume the Miller for Heyward deal still happens.

After signing Scherzer, the locked-in part of the rotation would have been Scherzer, Wainwright, Lynn, Lackey, and Wacha. Gonzales and Lyons are depth and/or bullpen options, and Garcia is a super depth option in rehab. He didn’t return until May 21, 2015, so Scherzer buys them time to let him rehab. Martinez is trapped in the bullpen for 2015.

The Opening Day payroll was $122.06M. Scherzer bumps that to $139.16M, a 14% increase. The Cardinals added Matt Belisle ($3.5M), Mark Reynolds ($2M), and Carlos Villanueva ($2M) that off-season. A 14% increase is too much. We have to shed some salary. Losing Belisle, Reynolds, and Villanueva gets it down to $131.6M. Beyond that... there aren’t a lot of other alternatives. Garcia had multiple years left on his deal and was rehabbing, making him wildly unlikely to trade. In our What If, the Cardinals increase salary 8% to accommodate Scherzer.

Wainwright was injured in late April, which clears a spot for Jaime Garcia’s 20 actual starts. Martinez’s 29 starts now go to Scherzer. Mad Max made 33 starts that year, so we’ll rob one start each from Lyons, Tim Cooney, and Lynn to get him to 32. Villanueva and Belisle combined for 94.2 IP. We’ll give 70 of those to Martinez then 12 each to Mitch Harris and Miguel Socolovich.

Reynolds is trickier with his 432 plate appearances, mostly a result of a mid-season injury to Matt Adams. We’ll give 75 more plate appearances to Dan Johnson, 175 to Xavier Scruggs, another 50 to Adams himself, 100 to Stephen Piscotty- whose call-up is now accelerated by the Adams injury- and the final 32 to Brandon Moss.

Here’s how it all looks:

2015 With Scherzer vs. Without

What If Player 2015 Cards fWAR What If
What If Player 2015 Cards fWAR What If
Scherzer 0 6.3
Martinez 3.3 1.3
Reynolds -0.1 0.0
Belisle 0.1 0.0
Villanueva 0.2 0.0
Harris -0.3 -0.4
Scolovich 0.4 0.6
Lyons 0.2 0.2
Cooney 0.4 0.3
Lynn 3 2.9
Johnson -0.2 -0.9
Scruggs -0.1 -0.5
Adams 0 0.0
Piscotty 1.4 1.9
Moss 0.6 0.7
Total 8.9 12.4

That’s a gain of 3.5 wins, and that includes the negative value from Scruggs, Johnson, Harris, and the loss of Martinez from the rotation. Of course, it’s never this simple- each team has their own unique mix and series of players who can be leveraged in certain situations. Still... spitballing a 3.5 win gain is impressive. They won 100 games in the actual 2015, albeit with a 96 win pythagorean record. With Scherzer, that’s somehow better.

2016

The 2016 season is a little easier to discern Scherzer’s influence. They had an Opening Day payroll of $145.5M. Adding Scherzer gooses that to $167.6, but they also signed Mike Leake for $12M. Clearly that would never happen if they had Scherzer, which shaves payroll down to $155.6M. That off-season, they re-signed Jonathan Broxton ($3.75M), which now never happens. Additionally, they probably would have non-tendered Brandon Moss ($8.25M) to accommodate Scherzer. That gets payroll down to $143.6M, just beneath the actual 2016 payroll.

To replace Broxton’s 60.2 innings, 45 innings go to Socolovich, which is less than Socolovich threw in AAA that season. We’ll add 5 more to Seth Maness and 10 to Sam Tuivailala. Scherzer made 34 starts, Leake made 30. We’ll get Scherzer to 33 by giving him one each from Martinez, Wainwright, and Garcia. Moss racked up 464 PAs (187 at 1B, 253 in the OF). We’ll allot the first base time to Adams (125 PA), Matt Carpenter (25 PA), and Jedd Gyorko (37 PA). The 253 OF plate appearances will go to Tommy Pham (125 PA), Jeremy Hazelbaker (100 PA), and Matt Holliday (28 PA).

Add it all up and the Cardinals gain 2.5 fWAR with Scherzer replacing Leake, and without Moss and Broxton. That might not sound like much, but the 2016 Cardinals finished with 86 wins and missed the Wild Card by a single game. Adding 2.5 fWAR almost certainly gets them over the top.

St Louis Cardinals v Pittsburgh Pirates
Somehow, Miguel Socolovich becomes the Stretch Beer of the roster to help afford the costly, tasty Scherzer innings

2017

This is our easiest season. Scherzer’s $22.1M pushes the Opening Day payroll all the way up to $170.2M. However, after we remove Broxton ($3.75M) and Leake ($15M), they’re just $2.35M over where they actually ended up. They ended up trading Matt Adams ($2.75M) in mid-May because they couldn’t find playing time for him. In our fictional universe, they push harder to get that done in the off-season instead.

Leake (26 games started) and Jack Flaherty (5 games started) nicely add up to the 31 starts that Scherzer actually made. For the sake of argument (and simplicity), we’ll give the 53 Matt Adams plate appearances to Luke Voit. Broxton was released after 15.2 innings. We’ll give 7.1 of those to Josh Lucas and the other 8.1 to Miguel Socolovich, who apparently is the biggest benefactor of the fictional Scherzer signing.

Here’s the breakdown:

2017: With Scherzer vs. Without Scherzer

What If Player 2017 Cards fWAR What If
What If Player 2017 Cards fWAR What If
Scherzer 0.0 6.4
Leake 1.7 0.0
Flaherty 0.0 0.0
Adams 0.1 0.0
Voit 0.3 0.4
Broxton -0.1 0.0
Lucas -0.1 -0.2
Socolovich 0.1 0.1
Total 2.0 6.8

There’s a 4.8 fWAR swing. The non-fiction Cardinals finished with 83 wins. With four more wins in the Scherzer Multiverse, they tie the Rockies for the second Wild Card. If we round up to five more wins, they become the second Wild Card outright.

2018

Opening Day payroll was up to $159.7M. With Scherzer, it’s $181.8M. Since Mike Leake never came to St. Louis, the Cardinals no longer need to pay the Mariners $6M in 2018 to let him pitch. That leaves payroll $16.1M higher. Before we try to trim more, let’s recap the state of the rotation. This version of the Cardinals would have a rotation that includes Scherzer, Martinez, Wacha, and Wainwright coming off of a very rough 2017. Vying for the fifth spot and supplying depth is a now untested Jack Flaherty, plus Luke Weaver and Austin Gomber. There are some question marks in there, but that’s likely enough options entering a season. In reality, the Cardinals signed Miles Mikolas, but he’s not needed now. In our What If scenario, Miles Mikolas and his $7.5M salary gets Thanos Snapped out of Cardinals existence. He probably signs with the Cubs, but that’s a theoretical for another day.

Without Mikolas, the Scherzer-infused payroll now sits $8.6M higher than it was in reality. The 2018 off-season was marked by comically poor bullpen additions. That was the off-season in which they spent $5M for Luke Gregerson, $14M for Greg Holland, and $3M for Bud Norris. Considering Gregerson signed in December, he was some sort of priority. Norris didn’t sign until February, and Holland signed on the cusp of the season. It sure looks like Holland would be the odd man out for the Cardinals, with Norris and Gregerson still signing. This version of the Cardinals roster in 2018, without Mikolas, Leake, and Holland, actually comes in $5.4M lower than their actual payroll. Granted, there would probably be some concerns about the bullpen without a Proven Closer™, but there’s enough firepower elsewhere to allay concerns.

Mikolas made 32 starts, while Scherzer made 33. We’ll pro-rate Scherzer down to 32 starts for an easy translation. As for Holland’s 25 innings, we’ll give 4 to Gregerson, 5 to Dominic Leone, and 8 each to Tuivailala and Norris.

Here’s the translation:

2018: With Scherzer vs. Without

What If Player 2018 Cards fWAR What If
What If Player 2018 Cards fWAR What If
Scherzer 0.0 7.3
Mikolas 4.2 0.0
Holland 0.0 0.0
Norris 0.1 0.1
Gregerson -0.1 -0.1
Leone 0.2 0.2
Tuivailala 0.0 0.0
Net 4.4 7.5

This is a testament to how amazing Scherzer was in 2018. Mikolas racked up 4.2 fWAR, made the All-Star team, and finished sixth in Cy Young voting. But replacing him with Scherzer is worth 3.1 wins to the 2018 Cardinals. In reality, they won 88 games and finished 3 games back of the Rockies (and Dodgers) for the second Wild Card. They also took a dookie in the bed in the last week, dropping five of the last six games against the Cubs and Brewers. Adding three wins here probably- but not certainly- gets them to the playoffs as a Wild Card. Considering how poorly Holland pitched in high leverage situations, replacing him with just about anything else and having Scherzer makes me confident they would have made it.

MLB: St. Louis Cardinals at Pittsburgh Pirates Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

2019

Scherzer’s salary swells to $37.4M. The actual Cardinals started the season at $162.6M. Scherzer gets them to $200M. Leake’s $5M and Mikolas’ $9M are gone, shrinking the figure to $186M. The $24M gap, and then some, is Andrew Miller ($11M) and Paul Goldschmidt ($14.5M).

If our Scherzer Cardinals made the playoffs from 2016-2018, it’s doubtful they would have had the urgency to acquire big ticket items like these. Moreover, part of the urgency around Goldschmidt was the fact that the Cardinals lacked a franchise icon. That’s no longer an issue with local boy-done-good Scherzer pitching as he did from 2015-2018. It’s tempting to identify Miller as the free agent left unsigned, but it seems far more likely it would have been Goldschmidt. In this new world, Carson Kelly, Luke Weaver, and Andy Young stay and the Cardinals still sign Andrew Miller, pushing payroll to $171.5M.

Scherzer still replaces Mikolas. However, Scherzer fell 5 starts shy of Mikolas (27 to 32). Genesis Cabrera takes on the five missing Scherzer starts in late July. Weaver still makes 12 starts, except in St. Louis this time. When he gets hurt (as he did in Arizona), Dakota Hudson takes his place in the rotation for 20 turns. Kelly replaces Matt Wieters.

Replacing Goldschmidt and his 682 PAs is difficult. Carpenter’s 492 plate appearances are now at first base, leaving a gap of 492 plate appearances at third base to replace and 190 at first base. Jose Martinez soaks up 100 of those, and Rangel Ravelo takes the other 90. Jedd Gyorko absorbs 75 PAs at third base, Tommy Edman is called up sooner and gets 150 more PAs, and the remaining 270 go to... Yairo Munoz. I’m doubtful it all would shake out this way, but this gives you an idea of what they were working with. Here are those results:

2019: With Scherzer vs. Without

What If Player 2019 Cards fWAR What If
What If Player 2019 Cards fWAR What If
Scherzer 0 6.5
Mikolas 2.5 0.0
Weaver 0 1.8
Hudson 1 0.6
Cabrera 0.1 0.2
Kelly 0 1.0
Wieters -0.3 0.0
Goldschmidt 2.8 0.0
J. Martinez 0.3 0.4
Gyorko -0.2 -0.4
Ravelo -0.1 -0.3
Edman 3.2 4.6
Munoz -0.2 -0.5
Total 9.1 13.9

Even playing Yairo Munoz three times as much and giving nearly 200 plate appearances to Jose Martinez and Rangel Ravelo and their gloves, they would have gained 4.8 fWAR. In fairness, a sizable chunk of that comes from Wieters to Kelly (+1.3 fWAR) and 32 starts of Weaver and Hudson combined instead of just Hudson (+1.4). They’re still the third best division winner in the National League, but it’s with 95 or 96 wins instead of 91.

The Impact

In three seasons without Scherzer (2016-2018), the Cardinals missed the playoffs. With him, they almost certainly would have made it at least two of those three seasons, perhaps all three. There’s a cash benefit to all of this. Each playoff home opening represents $1M or more in revenue, at least according to this estimate. That figure increases with each subsequent round. If any of those Wild Card teams reached the NLCS, it’s extra cash.

The Scherzer non-move is like King Midas in reverse, to quote Tony Soprano. A lot of what the non-move touched turned to... excrement. With Scherzer in St. Louis, Mike Leake doesn’t become a Cardinal. Tommy Pham gets more opportunity earlier in his career, as does Stephen Piscotty. Jonathan Broxton isn’t re-signed after coming over during the 2015 stretch drive. Greg Holland isn’t a Cardinal in 2018. The pressure over the three playoff-free seasons led to Goldschmidt, which probably doesn’t happen. I don’t mean to knock Goldschmidt, but it would mean that Weaver and Kelly would have had more of a chance to break out in Cardinal red instead of Diamondback... whatever color they are these days, all without sacrificing playoff odds. Going through all of this exercise, it was truly fascinating to see just how much benefit there was in the ramifications of having Scherzer, let alone the benefit of Scherzer himself. It’s so counterintuitive. You’d think that adding such a large salary would have precluded other moves to help the team. Instead, it would have prevented them from shooting themselves in the foot.

I don’t mean to hammer the Cardinals for not pursuing him harder. They had so much pitching talent and depth at the time. Scherzer the free agent had yet to become the future Hall of Famer that he became after that contract. That said, it’s hard to imagine this scenario looking worse.