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Nightengale: Scherzer is Nationals’ Regret-Free, $210 Million Bargain

Washington Nationals pitcher Max Scherzer. Photo: Brian Cassella / Chicago Tribune

By Bob Nightengale |

We’re watching him pitch every five days, but we’re not paying close attention.

In an era where big-bucks contracts are perceived as albatrosses, turning last winter into a living hell for most of baseball’s free-agent class, there is Washington Nationals ace Max Scherzer.

Scherzer, who starts Tuesday night against the Pittsburgh Pirates, leads the brigade of active free-agent signees who actually is out-performing his mega contract.

This is a man who signed a record seven-year, $210 million contract in January 2015, and here we are nearing the halfway point of his deal, and he’s been worth every single penny.

Scherzer is one of 21 pitchers in baseball history who have signed contracts worth at least $100 million. If he continues performing close to his production through three years and one month of the deal, it could turn out to be a steal, even at $210 million.

“Yeah, but I still have to finish the contract out,’’ Scherzer tells USA TODAY Sports. “I’m not even halfway through. I still have so many years here that I expect to pitch well in, and the team expects me to pitch well in, because they’re paying me so well.’’

Scherzer, 5-1 with a 1.62 ERA and league-leading 57 strikeouts, once again is having a stellar season, and will likely contend for his fourth Cy Young award. A win puts him alongside Roger Clemens, Randy Johnson, Steve Carlton and Greg Maddux as the only pitchers to achieve the feat. He is 55-27 with a 2.70 ERA since joining the Nationals, pitching more innings than anyone in baseball, winning two Cy Youngs with a fifth-place finish, two top-10 MVP finishes, and three All-Star Game appearances.

“If you go out there and try to prove your contract or your worth,’’ Scherzer says, “your head is in the wrong spot. I try to avoid falling down the trap of living up to my contract, or proving I’m worth it. Good or bad, I can’t go down that path.’’

A recent roundtable discussion with baseball executives and scouts led to a simple conclusion: Scherzer has performed the best among active players who signed long-term, free- agent contracts and switched teams. Sure, there are others in the conversation. Four years into his six-year, $155 million contract, Jon Lester is 45-26 with a 3.33 ERA and helped lift the Chicago Cubs to the 2016 World Series title in his second season there. All-Star third baseman Adrian Beltre of the Texas Rangers paved his way to Cooperstown with his five-year, $80 million deal in 2011, earning an All-Star nod or top 10 MVP finish every season.

Yet, no one may quite stand up to Scherzer, who has made at least 30 starts, pitched 200 innings and struck out at least 11 batters per nine innings in each season since joining the Nationals.

Scherzer’s body of work in his deal won’t be fully evaluated until his contract expires, but if he continues like this, he’ll at least be in the debate among the greatest long-term, free-agent contracts, joining the likes of Barry Bonds with the San Francisco Giants, Greg Maddux with the Atlanta Braves and Randy Johnson of the Arizona Diamondbacks.

“Right now,’’ says Nationals GM Mike Rizzo, “I think you’ve got to go with Johnson. It’s hard to do any better that that, right?’’

Johnson signed a four-year, $52 million free-agent contract on Dec. 1, 1998, with the Diamondbacks. In those four years, he won four Cy Young awards, three ERA titles, went 81-27, and led the Diamondbacks to their lone World Series title, going 3-0 with a 1.04 ERA against the New York Yankees.

“It was a risky move signing a guy like that coming off back surgery,’’ says Rizzo, who was the Diamondbacks’ scouting director. “But in deals like that, you don’t sign the player, you sign the person. That’s why we signed Max. You know it’s hard giving out that kind of money, but I felt good about it because I drafted him (with Arizona), and knew him so well as a person.’’

Maddux, coming off a Cy Young season with the Chicago Cubs, actually took $8 million less to sign with Atlanta than the Yankees when he signed his five-year, $28 million contract in 1992. Maddux promptly won three consecutive Cy Young awards with a runner-up and fifth-place finish, led the league in ERA three times, led Atlanta to the postseason every year, and won the 1995 World Series.

And Bonds, who signed a six-year-year, $43.75 million contract in December 1992, merely transformed an entire organization, keeping the Giants in San Francisco when they nearly relocated to St. Petersburg, and is responsible as anyone for AT&T Park being built.

Bonds hit 235 homers and drove in 600 runs in those first six seasons, winning an MVP with four top-five finishes, leading the league in walks four times, and producing at least a 1.000 OPS (on-base-plus slugging percentage) each season. He stayed in San Francisco the duration of his career, became baseball’s all-time home run king at 762 home runs, and will have his No. 25 retired in August.

Unlike Clayton Kershaw and his former Detroit Tigers teammate, Justin Verlander, Scherzer has not won an MVP award. The Nationals’ 2018 narrative could change that: Tuesday night’s start against Pittsburgh will be the first time Scherzer will take the mound not faced with stopping a losing skid.

And his ability to get deep into games – he trails NL leader Patrick Corbin by one inning pitched – has proven invaluable. Nationals relievers Ryan Madson, Brandon Kintzler and Sammy Solis have each appeared in 15 games already, a staggering pace that only three NL pitchers have exceeded. Injuries have shelved stars such as Anthony Rendon, Daniel Murphy and Adam Eaton while reducing Bryce Harper to a walks machine.

If Scherzer, who turns 33 in July, keeps going like this, it couldn’t hurt the free-agent prospects of Kershaw, David Price and Corbin this winter.

Then again, maybe executives will see it as nothing more than an aberration.

Still, when you see a guy like Scherzer actually getting better with age, teams can’t help but take notice, knowing that in this golden age of revenue, there still can be some nine-figure bargains out there.

“All I know is that we’re thrilled,’’ Rizzo says. “We would do it all over again.

“Believe me, in a heartbeat.’’

This article was republished with permission from the original publisher, USA Today. Follow Bob Nightengale on Twitter and Facebook.

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