Max Scherzer's free agency came to an abrupt end Sunday night as the Nationals landed the biggest fish on the open market. For the Red Sox, this is as good an end as any. They were never seen as serious contenders for his services, and now he's gone to the National League, where the Red Sox won't have to think about him except for the odd interleague game and the possibility of a Red Sox - Nationals World Series.
There's more to it than that, though. In fact, the Nationals may have been the perfect landing spot for Scherzer as far as the Red Sox are concerned. That's because the Washington rotation currently looks something like this:
- Max Scherzer
- Stephen Strasburg
- Jordan Zimmerman
- Gio Gonzalez
- Doug Fister
- Tanner Roark
You may notice that's one too many names. And not just any names, either. Scherzer, Strasburg, and Zimmerman are three of the best in the game. Gio Gonzalez is good enough to headline a few rotations around the league, and Doug Fister just put up a 2.41 ERA in 164 innings of work last year. And then there's Tanner Roark, an unheralded prospect who pitched his first full season last year at the age of 27 to the tune of a 2.85 ERA and 3.5 K/BB.
Will the Nationals be forced to trade away one of their pitchers? Perhaps not. While many expcted a big contract for Scherzer would put too much pressure on the Nationals' payroll, the Washington Post's Barry Svrluga says that might not be the case:
This is surprising: A source says if the Nats complete deal with Max Scherzer, they don't necessarily have to trade anyone to free up money.— Barry Svrluga (@barrysvrluga) January 19, 2015
If all six men made it to the regular season healthy, the Nationals could move Roark into a swingman, giving them one heck of a backup plan should any of the rotation members stumble or wind up on the disabled list.
But just because the Nationals can do that doesn't mean they will. With both Zimmermann and Fister bound for free agency after 2015, and with Roark still not even in arbitration, the Nationals would probably rather not jerk their up-and-coming young star back and forth between starting and relieving. The risk is not insignificant given that the reward--an excellent sixth starter--falls firmly in "luxury" territory.
And of course, there's the opportunity cost to be considered. Because if the Nationals aren't going to move Roark into the bullpen, they're going to need to find a home for one of their pitchers. And that, of course, is where the Red Sox come in.
Most likely we're talking about Jordan Zimmermann or Doug Fister here. Two possible deals with surprisingly different implications given that both pitchers are as good as they are. With Fister, the Red Sox would likely be looking at a rental. They're hardly the first ones, either. Fister has bounced from team to team with startling regularity given how consistently he's produced results. If he were to come to Boston, it would be his fourth team in five years despite never seeing his ERA+ dip below 113 during that period. The Red Sox could try to extend him, but given that Fister will be 32 before the start of the 2016 season, it wouldn't exactly be expected of them.
Zimmermann, on the other hand, will not turn 30 until May of 2016. For whatever reason, he also carries more of a reputation than Fister. He's placed in the same sentence as guys like Johnny Cueto when looking ahead to the 2016 free agent class, while Fister seems relegated to that second tier. In part that's due to age, in part due to perception. Whether it's fair or not, Zimmermann seems likely to command a somewhat higher price than Fister, perhaps to the point where the Red Sox should ensure they have an extension in place with Zimmermann before pulling the trigger.
What that extension might look like is anyone's guess. But it's hard to imagine Zimmermann goes for less than ace numbers. Still, given his age and one year under contract at $16.5 million, it's possible to construct a deal that it would make sense for the Red Sox to sign even in the wake of letting Jon Lester go to the Cubs. A 7-year, $168 million deal, for instance, seems massive, but would actually come in at a similar average annual value to Lester's and leave the Red Sox locked in only through Zimmermann's age 35 season, while Lester is currently signed until he's 36.
Both pitchers would, of course, be excellent fits in Boston. Zimmermann is legitimately the more impressive arm, having produced a stunning 6.28 K/BB in 2014. Doug Fister, meanwhile, fits Boston's 2015 plan to a tee with his high ground ball rates. Either one would nicely fill the hole at the top of the Red Sox' rotation, taking the pressure off Rick Porcello and Clay Buchholz to anchor the staff.
Whether for Zimmermann or Fister, the Red Sox certainly have the pieces to get a trade done. There's few players in the league who they can't find the right package for. As always, though, the question is whether they can get away without giving away any of the key parts of their plan for 2015 and the years to come. That means no Mookie Betts, Xander Bogaerts, or Blake Swihart. It just doesn't make sense to fill one hole with an expensive solution while opening up another by trading away a cost-controlled answer.
Can the Red Sox still get a deal done? Probably, particularly given the way the value of rentals has been trending downwards relative to the value of prospects in recent years. Still, if this match between the Red Sox and Nationals seems too obvious not to happen, we're talking about two very good pitchers who will have no shortage of interested parties, and the Red Sox are not ones to move with the market if the price goes above the point they think is reasonable. The Nationals probably represent their best chance to land a front-line pitcher on the trade market at this point, but there's still a lot of work to be done to make it happen.