As the Scherzer watch continues
It’s mid-January, and we’re not much clearer on Max Scherzer’s market than we were over the holidays. Here’s one scenario on how it might play out:
At some point, after weeks so far of teams saying they’re not in active pursuit, someone will be in active pursuit. A team will make an offer that meets enough of Scherzer’s criteria to draw serious consideration, presumably for more than six years. And then, Tigers owner Mike Ilitch will have a decision to make.
If Ilitch wants to keep Scherzer in a Detroit uniform, it’s probably going to happen. If Ilitch decides the price isn’t worth the impact, short term (payroll tax) or long (payroll committed through the decade), or if he decides the team’s offer from last spring was its best one, Scherzer will probably go somewhere else.
It’s not a right of first refusal, which agent Scott Boras insists the Tigers will not get. It’s the chance to top an offer, the leverage Boras has used expertly over the years, and the opportunity Ilitch used to keep Anibal Sanchez two years ago. Just as no active pursuit doesn’t necessarily mean no interest.
Nobody in the Tigers organization is going to tell Ilitch they don’t have a use for Scherzer, that they’re not a better team with Scherzer, because it wouldn’t be true. If the goal is exclusively a World Series title in 2015, their chances are better with Scherzer and worries about the long-term contract later. But considering how Ilitch has extended payroll over the years, and committed more than $450 million the last two years on contract extensions for Miguel Cabrera and Justin Verlander, nobody’s going to tell Ilitch he has to do anything (except maybe Boras).
As Boras has said, this is an ownership decision. And while opinions abound on what the Tigers might do — one industry official estimates the chances at a little less than 50-50 — nobody really knows but Ilitch. Remember, two years ago around this time, Tigers officials were saying they didn’t have the finances for Prince Fielder just a few days before signing him, and there were many reasons to believe that at the time.
What happens afterward is also an ownership decision. The Tigers have approached their offseason with a clear goal of avoiding the luxury tax. As we realized last month, they fell just $2 million shy of the $189 million luxury tax threshold in 2014, and that limit will be the same this year. If Scherzer returns, it would be up to Ilitch whether the Tigers would still try to stay under it by trading David Price, or go over for a year and pay 17.5 percent (the penalty rate for first-time offenders) on the excess.
From a financial standpoint, the challenge would be to try to get payroll under control for 2015. After that, free-agent departures from Price and others would put them back under.
From a baseball standpoint, the challenge would be to try to get a return in trade that would compare to the compensation pick they’d receive if they kept Price and saw him sign elsewhere as a free agent next winter.
The latter might be trickier. The Tigers would be trying to trade a high-salary player late in the offseason, when most teams have already set payroll and built their rosters accordingly. They’d also be trying to trade a player who would almost have to be viewed as a one-year rental, given the expectation that he’d play out the season and hit the open market as likely the top free agent available. They’d also arguably be going against the goal of a 2015 World Series that would be a primary factor in Scherzer interest.
Expectation would be for the Tigers to try to swing a trade. Of course, the Tigers were expected to trade Rick Porcello a couple years ago after re-signing Anibal Sanchez, too. In fairness, they knew in that case they wouldn’t be threatening the luxury tax.
Again, this is a scenario. Time will tell how it plays out.