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Exploring a Max Scherzer Trade

Let’s tackle the thing that everyone will want to talk about

Washington Nationals v New York Yankees Photo by Jim McIsaac/Getty Images

The St. Louis Cardinals’ starting rotation took a major hit earlier this week when Jack Flaherty sustained a significant oblique injury. The timetable for his return is unknown but it’s more reasonable to expect Flaherty’s return in two months, not two weeks. The Cardinals need Flaherty, as the rest of the rotation has been middling or worse, riddled with inconsistentency. Through Tuesday, the rotation was 11th in ERA, 18th in FIP, and dead last in K-BB%. And that was with Flaherty. Now they probably have to make it two months without him and there aren’t many internal replacements at this stage in their development. There is a replacement on the market, though. It may not be likely, but maybe I’m still drunk on the Nolan Arenado deal. Is it time for Max Scherzer, St. Louis’ wayward son, to return home?

Let’s disabuse some notions for a more accurate picture. First, the Nationals aren’t looking to trade Max Scherzer right now. Their playoff odds aren’t great because of the strength of the NL East. Still, they’re only six games back with over 100 games remaining. This is the same team that held onto Bryce Harper in a similar situation recently, which is to say that Nats’ GM Mike Rizzo is wired to go for it almost in perpetuity. It’s early for any team to punt on the season, and especially Rizzo’s Nats. Any trade scenario discussed here is about mid to late July, not June.

Second, Max Scherzer has a very complicated contract. You know, Maude, a lot of ins, a lot of outs, a lot of what-have-yous. John Bitzer at the always excellent Baseball Trade Values has a tremendous breakdown, which you should read if you want the full info. The gist is that there are multiple barriers:

  • He has full veto rights to any trade as a 10/5 player (10 years in the league, 5 with the same team)
  • $105M of Scherzer’s contract (his salary from 2019 to 2021) is deferred. It will be paid after this season in $15M increments each year from 2022-2028... minus the pro-rated portion from the shortened 2020.
  • He’s due half of his bonus for this season. It’s a long story, but in short, he’s owed a $7.5M bonus in September.

The deferred portion of his salary for 2021 is between $12.96M and $17.5M depending on when he’s traded, with the $12.96M figure an approximation for a July 31 trade and $17.5M if it happens in early July. Those complications provide the Nats with flexibiity. Now let’s assess the fit and barriers for the Cardinals.

Is there a need?

Duh? Obviously they have a need with Flaherty out. They had the need before Flaherty got hurt because the return of Miles Mikolas is still to be determined. They have John Gant getting results with smoke and mirrors and the regression monster staring him in the face. Kwang-hyun Kim and Adam Wainwright are fine, but it’s hard to get any kind of read on Carlos Martinez, especially after Wednesday’s debacle. Johan Oviedo is perfectly fine as depth but is hardly a long-term 2021 replacement for Flaherty. Daniel Ponce de Leon is having his worst season yet. Zack Thompson and Matthew Liberatore may eventually be contributors in St. Louis but doing so now would jump the gun. There aren’t a lot of great internal solutions at the moment.

Are Scherzer’s 10/5 Rights an Impediment?

Probably not, with a caveat. We can probably assume that Scherzer would waive his no-trade clause for the Cardinals. However, his hyper-competitive nature will drive where he lands. All the toasted ravioli in the world won’t entice him to pitch for a team that misses the playoffs. He’ll want another chance at a ring. That’s why it’s imperative the Cardinals remain near the top of the division until the Scherzer market heats up.

If anything, the 10/5 rights may help the Cardinals. Without veto powers, bubble teams like the Reds, Blue Jays, or even Twins might be tempted to make a power move. If Scherzer wants another shot at a ring, he could veto a trade to teams like that. All speculation, of course.

What are the Effects of His Complicated Contract? (aka the Nats Asking Price)

Scherzer’s ~$105M in deferrals and $7.5M bonus later this year give the Nats a chance to use a trade to get free of future money to Scherzer, or kick in more cash to the acquiring team for better prospects. The BTV article has great detail on this front.

Assume that an acquiring team will pay his (pro-rated) remaining deferred money for 2021- the $12.96 to $17.5M figure from earlier. A team could also offer to pay his bonus payment in September to lessen the prospect package. A generous team might offer all of that, plus some cash to help with his deferred payments from 2022-2028... which would lessen the prospect package even more.

The problem with that is that the Nats- given the poor state of their farm system- will probably be looking for more prospects, not more cash. A more likely scenario is that the Nats eat the September bonus, and split Scherzer’s remaining 2021 deferral with the trade partner. In other words, the Nats would be buying prospects to add to the Scherzer haul.

Theoretically the Nats could offer to pay all of it- the acquiring team doesn’t pay Scherzer a penny- in exchange for a massive prospect haul, but it’s unclear whether or not another team would be willing to kick in enough prospects to cover that for 2 months of Scherzer.

Here are prospect values for those scenarios:

  • Nats pay deferrals, bonus, and 2021 salary: Scherzer’s value is $14.4M PLUS anywhere from $12.96-$17.5M (total trade value: $27.4M to $31.9M)
  • Nats pay deferrals and bonus, but acquiring team pays Scherzer’s deferred 2021 salary: Scherzer’s trade value is $14.4M (median, per BTV)
  • Nats pay deferrals and bonus, but split Scherzer’s deferred 2021 salary: Scherzer’s trade value is $14.4M plus whatever amount the Nats cover of his 2021 deferred salary

Easy, right? But don’t forget- there will be a bidding war. It’s Max bleeping Scherzer at the peak of his value, leading in to October. Because of that, you can add a 10-15% premium to those values.

The Competition

Scherzer’s desire to compete for a championship may scare off some bubble teams, but there’s sure to be ample interest from legit contenders. All of the injuries across pitching staffs league-wide amplifies the number of teams willing to go all-in on a Scherzer deal. Even teams with plenty of pitching- the Mets, Padres, and Dodgers come to mind- would be foolish not to check in on Scherzer. The Yankees and Red Sox have had two of the best staffs in baseball to date, but either would jump at the chance to add Max Scherzer. That’s to say nothing of the Astros or (gasp) Cubs, who both have legit rotation needs, or creative, aggressive contenders like the Brewers and Rays (no matter how unlikely).

In other words, if the Cardinals truly want to win a bidding war for Scherzer, it’s going to hurt. Nolan Gorman is an overpay in most scenarios, but anything else in the Cardinals’ farm system would have to be on the table. The degree of pain comes down to how much cash the Nats want to kick in to buy prospects. And all of that presumes the Nats would prefer the Cardinals prospects to the offer from, say, the Yankees. Or Red Sox. Or Astros, Cubs, Padres, Dodgers, White Sox, and any other team with justifiable World Series aspirations come July.

All of which is to say that a Max Scherzer homecoming trade is possible, but the odds are stacked against it unless he uses his veto powers to force it.