Branch Rickey, the Hall of Fame baseball executive and the granddaddy of the sport’s farm system, said it time and again.
“Always trade a player one year too soon, rather than one year too late,” Rickey postulated.
But each theory has its exceptions, right?
I don’t know if the venerable Rickey would trade Max Scherzer, if Rickey came back to life as the Tigers GM. But if he would, this would be one that ole Branch would have gotten wrong.
Scherzer, 29, just won the American League Cy Young Award. He is due to become a free agent after next season. And there is a boatload of folks out there who want the Tigers to trade Max, for fear of letting him walk away after the 2014 season, with the Tigers left holding the bag.
It’s sissy talk.
First, let’s dispel some stuff here.
After next year, if Scherzer still hasn’t signed an extension with the Tigers, the team only needs to make a one year qualifying offer (this year that offer was $14.1 million for one season), and if Max signs elsewhere, the Tigers receive a first round draft pick from the signing team.
That’s not exactly the same as coming away with nothing.
Regardless, this business of trading him now for fear of what might happen one year hence is defensive, playing-not-to-lose baseball. It’s not about playing to win.
Oh, and by the way, Scherzer has publicly declared his lack of interest in being traded. He loves being a Tiger and he hopes that the team “doesn’t mess it up.”
But taking Scherzer’s personal preference out of this for a moment, let’s discuss.
The Tigers have been to the playoffs three straight years. Despite their warts, they are the unquestioned class of their division—the Cleveland Indians’ strong finish in 2013 notwithstanding.
With some tweaking that GM Dave Dombrowski no doubt will make to the roster, there’s no logical reason to believe that the Tigers won’t return to the post-season in 2014. Some will peg them for the World Series—you can count on that.
It stands to reason that the Tigers will be playing in October next year. How can they not, when their core includes the last three league MVPs and two of the last three Cy Young winners? When 40% of your starting rotation has a Cy Young on their resume, you’re onto something.
So why would the Tigers want to, as Scherzer put it, “mess that up”?
That’s what they would be doing if they traded Scherzer in what would plainly be a defensive move.
The “trade Scherzer” people are under the impression that Dombrowski would get exactly what Max is worth, and maybe even more.
But if you’re on the phone with DD, why would you toss in everything but the kitchen sink, when you know the other guy is trading from a position of weakness?
If Dombrowski actively shops Scherzer, then he is basically announcing to the baseball world, “Help! I have a very expensive pitcher who I don’t think I can sign! What’ll you give me?”
You think other execs will be quick to let Dombrowski and the Tigers off the hook?
But there are reports that the Tigers are “listening” to offers for Scherzer, you say.
I’d listen, to, in case someone is off their rocker enough to offer me a king’s ransom.
Listening is not the same thing as talking. My wife reminds me of that all the time, so it must be true.
Here’s what the Tigers should do—and what I think they will do.
If they don’t sign Scherzer to an extension before spring training—and I say it’s still too early to say that they won’t—then the Tigers should just ride it out in 2014 with Max still wearing the Old English D, keeping the band together, so to speak, with some new studio musicians as support.
Then, take your best shot in the playoffs.
Some scenarios to consider, using this approach.
Best case: Tigers win the World Series. Scherzer re-signs with Detroit. The fan base is delirious. Hey, it could happen.
Medium case: Tigers win the World Series. Scherzer walks. OK, not the ultimate for Tigers fans, but the team’s first World Series win in 30 years would significantly cushion the blow of Scherzer signing elsewhere. Plus, there’s still that first round draft pick.
Worst case: Tigers don’t win the World Series. Scherzer walks. Bummer, but again—draft pick!
Now, about the worst case scenario.
Does anyone really think that Scherzer will go 21-3 again in 2014? He had likely his career year in 2013. But there is still one more season to go before he is eligible for free agency. Remember, we never thought we’d be asking the questions about Justin Verlander that we were asking in 2013. Who’s to say that we won’t be worrying and wondering about Scherzer in, say, June of 2014? His value may dip a bit, making the Tigers legitimate players in re-signing him.
And, in case you forgot, the Tigers are still a pretty damn good team, even without Scherzer’s name on the roster. If he signs elsewhere, it would be unpleasant but not impossible to overcome.
Lance Parrish left the Tigers after the 1986 season and folks around town fretted. Parrish was arguably the league’s best catcher. He was the Big Wheel, for goodness sake.
The Tigers took the punch of Parrish signing with the Phillies and Detroit won the 1987 AL East title with Mike Heath as the starting catcher.
Players, really good players, leave teams all the time. The St. Louis Cardinals watched Albert Pujols, no less, walk away and sign with the Los Angeles Angels. Look what happened to the Angels. And in two years sans Pujols, the Cards have won a pennant and come close to winning two.
Trading Max Scherzer now, because you’re afraid he might sign somewhere else after next season, is not what championship teams do. Championship teams go for it, putting the best 25 guys out there and letting the chips fall. Right now, Scherzer is certainly one of those 25 guys.
Don’t mess it up.