After his start on June 6, 2012, Max Scherzer was 5-4 with a 5.88 ERA, 1.59 WHIP, and was allowing an OPS of .861 to opposing batters over the first 64.1 innings of the 2012 season, while posting an 80:24 K:BB (3.33) . Since that point, Scherzer has gone 32-6 with a 2.80 ERA, 1.02 WHIP, while allowing a triple-slash of .207/.267/.339 (.606 OPS) over 337.2 innings, posting a 391:92 K:BB (4.25). He won the 2013 American League Cy Young award with some incredible numbers, but heading into 2014, Scherzer will be in the last year of team-control for the Detroit Tigers, arbitration-eligible for the final time after earning $6.725 million in 2013, and he is estimated to earn roughly $14 million.
Certainly, Scherzer will be in line for a huge raise, especially with all of the insane numbers that he has posted while taking the reigns as the Tigers’ best pitcher from Justin Verlander. However, after posting the numbers that he has, would it be best to deal Scherzer right now, when he is viewed as one of the elite pitchers in all of baseball? There are several reasons why such a deal would make sense for Detroit.
Can Scherzer Maintain Success?
Scherzer has posted his incredible numbers over the last year and a half, but what was he doing before that? The first three-plus seasons of his career, Scherzer logged 617 innings and had a 3.92 ERA and a 1.31 WHIP, and while he posted an 8.7 K/9, his inconsistency was baffling for someone with such tremendous stuff. To be fair, it doesn’t always happen right away. Justin Verlander, in all of his greatness, had a 4.11 ERA and 1.33 WHIP over his first 600 innings, posting a 7.2 K/9 before being selected for the All-Star game every year since 2009 and winning a Cy Young and an MVP award; however, Verlander’s breakout came in his age-26 season, not the middle of his age-27 and all of his age-28 season. Now, at 29, will he continue his success?
In 2013, according to Pitch F/X, Scherzer introduced a curveball, which he threw about 6.5 percent of the time, while increasing the use of his changeup to 20.1 percent (up from the 17.5 percent that he threw it in 2012, though he did use it more earlier in his career). Once the league picks up on how he uses those pitches, will they make adjustments?
Additionally, Scherzer has dealt with seven cases of shoulder fatigue or stiffness dating back to his days pitching at Missouri, with fatigue setting in as recently as October of 2012. Even winning a Cy Young in 2013, Scherzer only reached 214.1 innings, his first season eclipsing the 200 inning threshold in five full seasons, so were there concerns from the Diamondbacks and Tigers as to how his workload would impact his previous shoulder issues? After all, the horses and ace-like pitchers in the league, like Verlander, typically reach between 220 and 250 innings in a season, as Adam Wainwright (241.2) and Clayton Kershaw (236) proved in 2013.
After huge progress over the last 18 months, has Scherzer proven anything or does he need to maintain his 2013 success an additional season prior to worthily achieving the ace label?
The big issue appears to be the raise that Scherzer could earn through arbitration and he only has one year remaining of team control. Should the Tigers cash him in or trade another starting pitching option and ride out Scherzer for one more year?
The Tigers’ Other Trade Options
Detroit has a luxury right now, possessing five outstanding starting pitchers in Scherzer, Verlander, Doug Fister, Anibal Sanchez, and Rick Porcello. Verlander’s huge contract and “down year”, if you can call it that, don’t really make him as expendable as Scherzer. Sanchez proved his worth in the first year of his free agent deal, and he appears to be someone that the club will build around as their No.2 starter – behind Verlander. This would leave the Tigers to deal from Fister or Porcello to clear salary to afford Scherzer and acquire prospects.
Fister will be due around $7 million in his second year of arbitration after earning $4 million in 2013. He has been a tremendous addition to the Tigers staff since being acquired in 2011 from the Seattle Mariners, going 32-20 with a 3.29 ERA and 1.19 WHIP over 440.2 innings over 70 appearances (68 starts). He turns 30 years old in February but after seeing what James Shields was worth with two years of team-control last season, when he was entering his age-31 season, why wouldn’t the Tigers look to deal him? While Fister doesn’t have the strikeout numbers that Shields’ produced, he would make for a fine No.2 starter on another club.
And what about Porcello? It hasn’t always been pretty for the young right-hander, who has five full seasons under his belt and will still be just 25 on Opening Day. His career 4.51 ERA and 1.39 WHIP appear hideous, but there are a few bright spots. The 2013 season was a huge leap forward for Porcello, as he posted a career best WHIP (1.28), strikeouts per nine (7.2), and strikeout to walk ratio (3.38), while getting a career-best groundball rate (55.3 percent) as he dramatically increased the use of his curveball, used his changeup at the highest rate of his career, and went away from his slider in 2013. Not to mention, his 4.32 ERA came along with a 3.19 xFIP, so what would he do without Miguel Cabrera and Jhonny Peralta on the left side of his defense? Due to the major league contract that he received after being drafted in 2007, he was rushed to Detroit, logging just 125 minor league innings before his major league debut in 2009, but that early debut also makes him expensive through arbitration. Porcello, like Fister, has two years of team control remaining, but after earning $5.1 million in 2013, he could earn around $8 million in 2014, without the success that Fister has shown in his service time. Porcello had ace potential when he was selected out of a New Jersey high school over six years ago, but he hasn’t truly tapped that level and may never reach that level, but the slight increase in his stats in 2013 show that there is still potential in his arm.
Why Scherzer (and Others) Are Expendable
One name has seems to make the Tigers capable of dealing a starting pitcher this weekend: Drew Smyly.
Smyly dominated in 2013 out of the bullpen, posting a 2.37 ERA and 1.04 WHIP over 76 innings with an 81:17 K:BB (4.76). Smyly has been very good since reaching the majors, and while he was fantastic in relief, he hasn’t been much worse as a starter:
Smyly lost his starting job in 2012 when the team acquired Anibal Sanchez from the Marlins while he was on the disabled list for a right intercostal strain, which came shortly after he was on the disabled list due to a blister on his middle finger of his left (pitching) hand.
Smyly has allowed a .235/.291/.385 triple-slash (.676 OPS) since arriving in Detroit, he has a 1.17 WHIP (ranking in the top 30 in MLB since the start of the 2012 season), his 24.3 percent strikeout rate is 10th among all pitchers with at least 150 innings pitched since the start of the 2012 season, and his 3.50 K:BB rate is also within the top 30 since the start of the 2012 season.
There will be some risk in relying heavily on Smyly in a starting role if the club was to trade Scherzer, Fister, or Porcello to make room for him. He threw his changeup, a pitch nearly every starter needs, in just 3.2 percent of his pitches (according to Pitch F/X) in 2013, while throwing a cutter at a much higher rate out of the bullpen. Although, according to FanGraphs, his changeup may have been misunderstood as his curve or slider, as well:
You can see in the blurred photo above that FanGraphs and Pitch F/X seemed to have a difference on the pitches that Smyly was using in 2013, but he does have more than two pitches, regardless of whether he was using a fastball, two-seamer, cutter, and one or more different breaking balls. He was pretty effective for most of the 2012 season as a starter, as well, posting similar numbers (3.79 ERA and 1.21 WHIP) to what Scherzer did in 2012 for Detroit (3.74 ERA and 1.27 WHIP).
So, Why Trade Scherzer?
Smyly may not replace the dominance that Scherzer showed in 2013, but the Tigers will likely have more effective seasons out of the remaining three starters if they were to deal their Cy Young winner this winter. After all, if Justin Verlander returns to form in 2014, we could see much more of the September Verlander (2.27 ERA, 1.11 WHIP, 10.89 K/9) than what we saw over most of the 2013 season.
By dealing Scherzer, the Tigers could acquire several young pieces to build around. They do have Nick Castellanos ready to take over in the outfield in 2014, but their farm system is likely in the bottom half of Major League Baseball, with only Jonathan Crawford, a 2013 1st round pick, as impact prospects within their current system, as the remainder of the group looks more likely to fill utility roles or back-end starters or relief pitchers.
Dealing Scherzer for young talent would allow the Tigers to stockpile their system with more impact prospects. With Torii Hunter, Prince Fielder, Miguel Cabrera, and Victor Martinez all getting up there in age, the Tigers need to prepare themselves with much better athletes, arms, and bats as those aging veterans begin to regress.
While dealing Fister or Porcello would likely provide some value, as well, the Tigers can be players in the American League Central in 2014 with a Verlander, Sanchez, Fister, Porcello, and Smyly rotation due to their strong offensive talent. By slashing the payroll that comes along with a huge arbitration raise for Max Scherzer, the Tigers could add a better defensive shortstop, like Stephen Drew, to assist their poor infield defense, while possibly leaving them with enough wiggle room to re-sign Omar Infante at second base. (NOTE: Jose Iglesias…how did I forget that? Maybe Drew at second and Iglesias at short could form one of the top up the middle defenses in baseball with Austin Jackson in center, if they don’t re-sign Infante, but they don’t need a shortstop with Peralta leaving to free agency with Iglesias around)
With the free agent market likely to see absurd amounts of money thrown around due to the new television contract revenue, the Detroit Tigers need to determine if paying Max Scherzer $20 million or more per season on a nine-figure contract is more valuable than the near-ready prospects that they can receive for him now, or, worse yet, the lone compensatory pick that they would receive if he received that mega-contract from another team after the 2014 season.
The Tigers need to trade Scherzer while his value is at its peak – after winning a Cy Young. The deal that the Toronto Blue Jays provided to the New York Mets – Noah Syndergaard, Travis d’Arnaud, and a couple of other spare parts – would be a tremendous starting point for Tigers’ GM Dave Dombrowski.