Prior to the 2014 season, Tigers general manager Dave Dombrowski announced that the club had made a lucrative contract offer to then-current Cy Young winner, Max Scherzer. The offer was reported to be worth $144 million over six years, averaging $24 million per season. It would have made Scherzer one of the highest paid pitchers in baseball.
The announcement was very unusual. Dombrowski has a reputation for keeping contract negotiations close to the vest and rarely comments on contract matters. But this was different. He needed to let the Tigers' fanbase know that the team had tried, but Scherzer and his agent, Scott Boras, were hell-bent on testing the waters of free agency. Within a matter of days after the announcement, Dombrowski announced that the Tigers had signed Miguel Cabrera to an eight year, $248 million extension.
In his annual postseason conference after the season, Dombrowski commented further on the possibility of signing Scherzer, as reported by MLB.com writer Jason Beck.
"Well, we had thorough conversations before the season, and I don’t know that it’s all dictated by us at this point. I think we made ourselves pretty well known at that time where we stood. He’s a quality pitcher. We know that. He’s done a lot for our organization, but it’s apparent that his representative wanted him to test free agency. And that comes up in a couple weeks. …
I think we probably made more of an effort to sign Max earlier in the year. So I don’t think your odds improve [from] what they were earlier. Why would they improve if we have one-on-one ability to speak with you, compared to having 29 other clubs speak with you? Only time will tell."
Not exactly a statement ringing with optimism. Add the fact that the Tigers traded Drew Smyly, Austin Jackson, and top infield prospect Willy Adames at the trade deadline to acquire David Price, and one could be forgiven for thinking that Price was going to be Scherzer's replacement in the rotation for 2015 and beyond. Dombrowski didn't slam the door shut, and has never said that the team would not try to sign Scherzer.
Now comes the signing of fellow free agent Victor Martinez, at a cost of $17 million per season. That deal pushes the club's payroll for just 14 players -- assuming they pick up the $ 5.4 million option on catcher Alex Avila -- past the $163.5 million that they paid for the entire roster as of Opening Day 2014. It also pushes the team's payroll for luxury tax purposes right to the brink of the tax threshold.
How much will Scherzer cost? A reasonable estimate would be around $25 million for six to eight years. But who said Scherzer will settle for what's reasonable? He is, after all, the best free agent pitcher on the market this offseason, and he stands to get one of the biggest free agent contracts ever given to a starting pitcher.
Justin Verlander is receiving $28 million per season with an average annual value above $25.7 million over seven years. Agent Scott Boras has one objective: get his client the greatest amount of money that he can. If Boras has to wait out the market until all the other starting pitchers have been signed in order to find a general manager who hasn't quite addressed the needs of his starting rotation, so be it. Boras plays a mean game of chicken with free agents.
There is something else that Scott Boras is known for. He isn't afraid to go over a general manager's head and contact an owner directly. He has done so in the past and wouldn't hesitate to do so again if it gets him the best deal. Tigers' owner Mike Ilitch has dealt directly with Boras before, and it's not out of the question that he could do so again.
Scherzer is not only the best free agent pitcher, but has also been the best pitcher on the Tigers staff for the past two seasons. By any measure, taking him out of the rotation is a loss that is going to hurt the team. It's easy to spin it by saying that the Tigers have four solid starting pitchers, even without Scherzer. Both Ilitch and Boras know this.
In the world of the luxury tax, the Tigers would pay a penalty of 17.5 percent on every dollar that exceeds the threshold of about $178 million. That means the cost of a $25 million salary becomes $29.375 million. This is not as high as the tax paid by the New York Yankees (which is now 50 percent) or the Los Angeles Dodgers (who pay a 30 percent tax). But it's a significant amount. Whether it deters the Tigers from adding any more players to their payroll remains to be seen.
Whether it's signing Victor Martinez or whether it's the trade for David Price, it doesn't look good for Scherzer returning to Detroit.
If the Tigers don't sign Scherzer, it doesn't sound like Dombrowski plans on shopping for a replacement.
- On potentially shopping for Scherzer replacement: "I don’t know that. I think we have some young pitchers we feel pretty comfortable with at this point, but I’m not sure where all that would take place, but I feel comfortable staying internal with the four guys we would have at that point. But again, we haven’t made that decision."
- On potential internal competition for Scherzer’s spot: "I think we have enough pitching at this point with the four guys there that, if it comes down to that, I’d feel comfortable with that."
The Tigers like Max Scherzer, and he likes Detroit. Mr Ilitch wants to win a world championship, and Scherzer could help him to do just that. He isn't getting any younger, and the Tigers' chances of winning a championship won't be getting any better. If there is one thing that we know about Ilitch, it is that we should never under estimate how much he is willing to spend to win.