By JON HEYMAN
The best player on the MLB free-agent market not only doesn’t have a team yet, he doesn’t even have a rumor.
No team has declared or even admitted serious involvement, but everyone believes star right-hander Max Scherzer — the majors’ leader in wins and strikeouts the past three seasons — will easily surpass the six-year, $144 million deal he turned down last spring.
And most think it won’t be by only a little, either.
But with no one coming forward, at least not publicly, which team will win Scherzer?
Here are the nine best suspects, based on need, finances, history, market and more.
1. Red Sox: They rebuilt a rotation in little more than a day at the Winter Meetings with three quick pickups. But as many have pointed out they still need an ace, whether it be Scherzer, the other top free-agent pitcher James Shields or a trade candidate, such as Cole Hamels. Any of the losers for Jon Lester would seem prime candidates, but Boston is known to be extremely averse to very long deals and bid the lowest of the four Lester finalists (six years, $135M). On the other hand, it is believed they like Scherzer very much, plus they wouldn’t have to surrender a No. 1 draft choice after a rare poor season, and the price of a top trade targets like Hamels may be unpalatable (allegedly, such a trade would have to start with Mookie Betts and/or Blake Swihart, Boston’s top two young prospects). And, just like Lester, he’s impressed in the AL and also in October.
2. Tigers: It’s well known the Tigers were willing to go $144 million for six years, and that would have been on top of the $15.3 million they paid Scherzer last season, so it really would have been a guaranteed $159.3 million for seven. Detroit’s original plan was to keepDavid Price long-term. However, as was mentioned here on Oct. 9, while Price’s transition to Detroit started to get better by the end of the season, he admitted it was difficult for him in Detroit at first. And even in the best of circumstances it isn’t easy to lock up such a top starter within a year of free agency. In Scherzer, they have a pitcher who has won 70 percent of his starts for them. The Tigers also wouldn’t have to surrender a No. 1 pick since Scherzer’s their guy. While president/GM Dave Dombrowski has denied reports they plan to go big for Scherzer and there’s no evidence they have, agent Scott Boras has a long history of big and mostly successful deals with owner Mike Ilitch — from Magglio Ordonez to Ivan Rodriguez to Kenny Rogers to Prince Fielder (though that one got better with the trade forIan Kinsler). Another factor: the Tigers have difficulty drawing free agents from elsewhere, but Scherzer is said to love it in Detroit.
3. Giants: Another Lester finalist, they made pitching their priority after third baseman Pablo Sandoval surprisingly opted for Boston. While they re-signed veteran Jake Peavy, they still have rotation questions. Matt Cain is returning from elbow surgery, Tim Lincecum from a rough second half and ace Madison Bumgarner from a brilliant 270-inning season (counting the postseason). Some within their ranks suggest lefty Lester was a special case, but they obviously have the wherewithal after all their on- and off-field success. And they even have a history of paying big on occasion (Barry Bonds, Barry Zito). Another plus: Scherzer’s wife is from the Bay Area.
4. Dodgers: Once they bid on Lester (it’s believed they were in the $155 million range), any notion they seriously intended to significantly reduce their record $250 million payroll went out the window. There’s a strong in-house belief that, barring injury, Zack Greinke will opt out after the 2015 season, breaking up the arguably the game’s best 1-2 pitching combo. Scherzer was spotted last week at a Lakers game in LA, but it is believed he was there to meet with other owners, not necessarily the Dodgers’ owners. They have a very strong rotation, but there also could be an innings worry here, with talented imports Brandon McCarthy and Brett Anderson something less than innings eaters. Regardless, they need to do what they can to make sure baseball’s best pitcher, Clayton Kershaw, is fresh for the postseason.
5. Blue Jays: They’ve always had a five-year limit on contracts, but that may not hold since club president Paul Beeston appears to be a lame duck with limited say so. They’ve made two bold statements this winter with the deals for Josh Donaldson and Russell Martin, and could stamp themselves the AL East favorite by signing Scherzer. For now, they have to rely on young-but-talented arms, arms likely younger than they’d like. Needs at closer and second base remain, though they haven’t seemed to rule out another major move.
6. Cubs: They already reeled in one big fish, landing Lester for $155 million over six years. Could they possibly make it two big ones? With all their youth, they’d still appear to be a year away from contention, and their winter certainly doesn’t depend on it. However, there’s a belief Scherzer could dominate the NL Central, and the Cubs would only have to give up a third-round pick. A rotation of Scherzer, Lester, Jake Arrieta, Jason Hammel andKyle Hendricks would be formidable, and with their incredible positional prospect stash, they could be a force for years.
7. Cardinals: The hometown team hasn’t made a bold move for Scherzer, a product of suburban St. Louis and the University of Missouri. However, GM John Mozeliak met with Boras at the GM meetings and there are a few rotation questions: ace Adam Wainwright is coming off elbow cleanup, Michael Wacha was sidelined much of 2014 because of a shoulder concern and Shelby Miller was traded to the Braves. St. Louis hasn’t been one to step out in free agency (Matt Holliday is their record deal: $120 million) but they certainly have the ability to do so. Consider brilliant owner Bill DeWitt bought the team, a cash cow, for only $150 million, then sold the adjacent parking garages for $90 million, making the effective sale price a paltry $60 million. So he has the money. But does he have the inclination?
8. Angels: They won more regular-season games (98) than anyone last season, but aceGarrett Richards isn’t going to be ready to start the season. While their rotation depth is improved with youngsters Andrew Heaney and Nick Tropeano, it still isn’t overwhelming. They’ve given no indication they’re about to go for a third surprise free-agent splurge in four years (Albert Pujols and Josh Hamilton were the first two), but if they did, they’d be a World Series favorite. They’ve also said they intend to stay below the luxury-tax threshold, though they still may have a bit of room.
9. Yankees: Hal Steinbrenner has been weighing Scherzer for weeks, but in recent days indications are Steinbrenner still isn’t ready to dive in, and they’ve said as much. Many rotation question questions carry over from last season, and it appears that for now at least, talented youngster Nate Eovaldi is the answer to McCarthy’s departure. Their starting group could be very good, but there’s a lot of uncertainty, from Mashiro Tanaka’s elbow to CC Sabathia‘s knee to Ivan Nova‘s elbow to Michael Pineda‘s ability to continue to perform. The issue is this: With a 50 percent tax for them, a $28 million salary for Scherzer would cost them $42 million, steep even by Yankees standards.
The field: The Rangers have a dynamic offense, a reasonable, $130 million payroll, rotation questions and insurance money from Matt Harrison‘s continuing back woes. The Nats have strong ties to Boras and could make sense if they dealt ace Jordan Zimmermann, but that ultimately looks like a long shot. The Orioles could solidify their already excellent team and save their offseason, but that would really be a shocker.