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How big will Max Scherzer's free agent contract be?

Max Scherzer turned down a lucrative offer to stay with the Tigers. How much can he get as a free agent?

Rob Carr

According to many pundits, Max Scherzer is the best pitcher available on the free agent market this winter. He turned down a six year, $144 million offer to stay with the Detroit Tigers prior to the 2014 season. His agent, Scott Boras, has a reputation for getting the most money possible for his clients, and Scherzer figures to sign one of the biggest free agent contracts in Major League Baseball.

How much is Scherzer likely to get as a free agent?

Scherzer hits the market as a former Cy Young winner, and has been one of the game's best pitchers over the past few seasons. At age 30, he is one of the younger free agent starting pitchers available. He has no significant injury history.

In 2014, Scherzer ranked sixth among American League pitchers in WAR, ninth among qualified pitchers in ERA and fielding independent pitching (FIP), second in strikeout rate, and 10th in strikeout-to-walk ratio.

Over the past two seasons combined, Scherzer is tied with Felix Hernandez of the Seattle Mariners with 12 wins above replacement, the best figure in the American League among pitchers. Scherzer averaged 217 innings pitched per season, over 10 strikeouts per nine innings, and has a WHIP of 1.07.

Simply put, Scherzer is one of the best pitchers in the game, and would like to be paid accordingly. So, how much do the best pitchers in baseball earn on the free agent market?

According to Cot's Contracts, Clayton Kershaw of the Los Angeles Dodgers has the highest average annual salary among pitchers, at $30.7 million. That is second among all players, trailing only Miguel Cabrera's $31 million per season, which runs from the 2016 season through 2023. Kershaw's contract is for seven years, from 2014 through 2020.

Justin Verlander is the highest paid pitcher in the American League with an average annual salary of $25.7 million. His contract also runs for seven seasons, the first two being part of his old contract that paid him $20 million per year. The five year extension pays Verlander $28 million per season.

Here are the highest-paid starting pitchers, by average annual contract value

Rank Player Average annual value Years
1 Clayton Kershaw $30.7 million 2014-20
2 Justin Verlander $25.7 million 2013-19
3 Felix Hernandez $25 million 2013-19
4 Zack Greinke $24.5 million 2013-18
5 CC Sabathia $24.4 million 2012-16
t-6 Cole Hamels $24 million 2013-18
t-6 Cliff Lee $24 million 2011-15
8 CC Sabathia $23 milion 2009-15*
9 Johan Santana $22.9 million 2008-13
10 Masahiro Tanaka $22.1 million 2014-20

*Sabathia opted out of his first contract with the New York Yankees after 2012 season.

The Tigers' reported offer of $24 million per year for six years to Scherzer would have been among the top contracts for a starting pitcher.

In terms of total contract value, Kershaw also has the largest contract for a starting pitcher at seven years and $215 million. It is worth noting that the first season of that contract was the last season in which he was eligible for arbitration, as he was not yet eligible for free agency. That contract ranks as the seventh largest in baseball history.

Verlander's seven year, $180 million contract is the 11th largest overall, and second highest for a pitcher, just ahead of Hernandez's $175 million deal.

Here is a list of the highest total valued contracts for starting pitchers:

Rank Player Total contract value Years
7 Clayton Kershaw $215 million 2014-20
11 Justin Verlander $180 million 2013-19
13 Felix Hernandez $175 million 2013-19
15 CC Sabathia $161 million 2009-15
19 Masahiro Tanaka $155 million 2014-20
23 Zack Greinke $147 million 2013-18
25 Cole Hamels $144 million 2013-18
29 Johan Santana $137.5 million 2008-13

It should not be surprising that most of the largest contracts are given to position players rather than pitchers, because of the inherent risk of injury or declining performance for pitchers.

If there is one pitcher to whom Scherzer matches up with better than the others, it is probably Verlander. Having won a Cy Young award and being among the game's elite for a number of seasons, with age, health, and all the other considerations mentioned above, one would think that Scherzer should be able to land a contract in the range of Verlander's or Hernandez's contracts.

The most difficult point for teams looking to sign an ace pitcher might not be the annual salary, but the years. No club wants to have an injured or ineffective pitcher on the payroll at $25 million (or more) per season, which is a real possibility before a long term contract expires. The chances of Scherzer continuing to pitch at his current performance level past six years are not good. Yet, Boras is sure to open the bidding by asking for $200 million and eight years.

If I had to make an educated guess, I would say that Scherzer signs a contract for seven years, $182 million, with a full no-trade clause.