Max Scherzer, 36, is scheduled to become a free agent at the conclusion of the 2021 Major League Baseball season. His team, the Washington Nationals, is currently in last place in the National League East, 7.5 games behind the New York Mets and with, per Baseball Prospectus’s PECOTA standings, just a 5% chance at reaching the postseason. This makes Scherzer an intriguing candidate for being dealt at the 2021 trade deadline, and the St. Louis Cardinals, who play 20 miles down the road from where the Parkway Central High School alum grew up, an obvious name to throw into the rumor mill.
There are positives and negatives to Max Scherzer as a candidate for the St. Louis Cardinals starting rotation and I will look at them now. I’ll start with the pros because, frankly, it’s a pretty direct sell.
He’s really good.
Honestly, I don’t even care about the “he’s a local kid” part. It has its charms, but if he weren’t a good player, he would do nothing for me. But Max Scherzer is one of the best pitchers of his generation. For seven consecutive seasons, from 2013 through 2019, Scherzer finished in the top five in Cy Young Award voting, winning the award three times. He was the rare pitcher who was good in his twenties but who unquestionably has been superior in his thirties, shedding a walk or two per nine innings off of his merely good seasons and becoming a complete pitcher who still has jaw-dropping strikeout numbers.
Max Scherzer remains an elite pitcher. In thirteen starts this season (his most recent one, it must be said, ended in the first inning with injury concerns, but all subsequent reporting suggests it is not a major long-term concern), he sports a 2.21 ERA and 3.05 fielding-independent ERA, numbers which might put him in the hunt for another Cy Young Award in a world in which Jacob deGrom isn’t a space alien. Over the last decade, Scherzer has been, along with Clayton Kershaw, one of the two standard-bearers for the modern starting pitcher, and like Kershaw, he will be fast-tracked to Cooperstown five years after his retirement. Given his age, it is a settled matter that Scherzer will under no circumstances be donning a St. Louis Cardinals cap when he gets there, but in the short term, he would be the best pitcher on the Cardinals even in a world with a healthy Jack Flaherty, and by far the best pitcher in a world where Flaherty remains on the IL. Under the pretty safe assumption that the Washington Nationals are seeking young players and minor league prospects for Scherzer rather than players to help them win in 2021, it is undeniable that Max Scherzer would make the Cardinals a better team in 2021.
Remember earlier when I said that the Washington Nationals only have a 5% chance at the postseason per PECOTA? Do you know where the Cardinals stand? They’re at 4.1%.
It’s probably a waste of time to quibble with whether the Nationals or Cardinals actually have a better postseason chance–I would still give the edge to the Cardinals, who have the superior record, have fewer teams they would need to pass for a division title, and play in what is probably the weaker division. But it would also be malpractice to deny that the Cardinals are in a rather unfortunate spot. One game below .500 is certainly not a deficit which cannot be overcome–the Washington Nationals of 2019, after all, were six games below .500 on this date before turning the season around and eventually winning the World Series. But the Nationals were also viewed in the moment as wildly disappointing, a sleeping giant ready to pounce at any given point, which they did. The Cardinals, meanwhile, were projected to win 80.6 games by PECOTA before the season, and even in-the-tank Cardinals bloggers were picking the Milwaukee Brewers to win the NL Central before the season began.
And this was before the Cardinals were inundated with an outrageous collection of injuries. The St. Louis Cardinals front office absolutely deserves criticism for the team’s lack of depth entering the 2021 season, swapping out Kolten Wong for Nolan Arenado and otherwise calling it a day, but even if the Cardinals had assembled a reasonable level of positional and, particularly, rotational depth, the Cardinals would still unavoidably be giving an annoying number of starts to Johan Oviedo.
Even if the Cardinals are able to right the ship and recover from injuries to play at the 85-win pace I forecasted before the season for the remainder of it, this would only put the Cardinals at 83 wins. While this was enough to win the 2006 World Series, it certainly won’t be enough to win a National League Central that currently has two teams, the Milwaukee Brewers and Chicago Cubs, which are eleven games over .500. Are the Brewers and Cubs actually true-talent 95 win teams, as they have played at that rate through mid-June? Probably not, but those early season wins still count in the standings. If even one of them plays just one game above .500 over the remaining 97 games of the regular season, they’d finish with 87 wins. For the Cardinals to reach 87 wins, they would need to play at a 92 win pace for the rest of the season. Possible? I guess, and Max Scherzer certainly helps the case, but the Cardinals also aren’t magically going to have a healthy Jack Flaherty, Miles Mikolas, Harrison Bader, and so forth.
The primary argument against trading for Max Scherzer is simple–he probably isn’t enough to move the needle. There is still a month and a half until the trade deadline, and it’s not unreasonable that the Cardinals could find themselves within a game or two of a playoff position by then. But that is a conversation for another day which may or may not actually come. As it stands right now, the Cardinals are closer to being in the position of sellers (though without many pending free agents to make for obvious sell candidates) than they are to being in a position to justify a trade for Max Scherzer. A trade for a José Berríos or a Kyle Gibson would make more sense if for no other reason than that in the likely scenario that the Cardinals still miss the playoffs, the Cardinals would have a solid pitcher for next season (in this case, I would strongly prefer Berríos to Gibson, a perfectly cromulent starter but who, before this season, was regarded more as depth than an exciting trade target, and who, as a 33 year-old former University of Missouri pitcher, would inevitably be treated as a dime store Max Scherzer).
But the real argument against Max Scherzer isn’t that he wouldn’t help enough–even if it’s true, it would be pretty fun to watch Max Scherzer pitch for my favorite baseball team in unquantifiable ways, as well. It’s that he comes at a cost. And I’m not talking about his contract–the remaining salary on his contract could easily be covered by all of the money that the Cardinals aren’t paying Nolan Arenado. It’s the prospects that would be required for him. In a scenario where the Cardinals are a game out of the postseason hunt and would look like legitimate Dodgers or Padres-esque contenders with Max Scherzer, you could talk me into trading Nolan Gorman–I’m pretty conservative on trading prospects, arguably too much so, but Scherzer really would in this scenario be a perfect fit. But Gorman, already a bottom-half-of-the-top-fifty prospect entering 2021, is now tearing the cover off of baseballs in AA Springfield as a 21 year-old. His numbers are eclipsing those of Dylan Carlson at the same level and age, and in what might end up being a long summer for St. Louis Cardinals fans, Gorman provides us some hope. Matthew Liberatore, with AAA Memphis at 21, hasn’t been quite as jaw-dropping as Gorman, but he’s also doing it at a higher level, and he’s so highly regarded that he has been called up to pitch in United States Olympic qualifiers. Zack Thompson, a 23 year-old who is more of a regionally-intriguing prospect than a national one, has struggled mightily in Memphis, but even he, while an easy player to trade in some circumstances, would be a strong candidate for “guy Cardinals fans obsess over having traded” if all he garners is a few months of going-nowhere Max Scherzer production.
If the Nationals could somehow be swindled into taking a truly inconsequential prospect, then fine. If Jhon Torres gets it done, I won’t lose sleep over it if Scherzer spends two seconds on the Cardinals and then leaves St. Louis without a postseason appearance. But the Nationals won’t do this. They have all of the leverage, and some pitching-hungry contender will give up a relatively significant prospect or two for Max Scherzer. And while John Mozeliak’s wishy-washiness on a Max Scherzer type of trade can be very irritating (note: considering it’s fundamentally his job to give press conferences on behalf of Bill DeWitt Jr., who only shows up when it’s to introduce Nolan Arenado or something that’s a pure public relations win, this is probably a little unfair to Mo, but also, he makes a seven-figure salary to be a public-facing whipping boy, so I’m not going to get too bent out of shape about it), switching from “this team is rolling so why would I want to mess with success?” to “we don’t believe this would be a game-changer for us” with surgical precision, he probably wouldn’t be wrong in the latter case. By all means, the Cardinals should keep an eye on Scherzer in case things turn around in the next month (after all, they are about to play the Miami Marlins at home), but at the moment, pursuing Scherzer feels like a desperate attempt to try to salvage 2021 from a team that probably, to some extent, needs to rebuild.