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Grading the Mets’ Max Scherzer signing

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LFGM, now in technicolor.

Division Series - Los Angeles Dodgers v San Francisco Giants - Game Five Photo by Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images

The Mets’ Black Friday shopping spree was exciting, but there biggest move didn’t come until the following Monday, when they signed Max Scherzer to a 3-year, $130M contract. It’s a record contract in terms of AAV, and certainly the largest financial commitment ever made to a 37-year-old pitcher. That’s the kind of dough you have to throw around to bring in a pitcher regarded as one of the best in the game, even as he approaches 40.

Max Scherzer is one of the two best pitchers of his generation, with his only competition being Clayton Kershaw. Since 2010, those sit head and shoulders above the rest of the league in terms of fWAR, and Scherzer stands alone since 2015. Here are his Cy Young finishes since 2014: 3rd, NR, 3rd, 2nd, 1st, 1st, 5th, 5th. The only thing more insane than that run of success is Scherzer’s straight up psychotic demeanor on the mound. We could dissect this performance further, but it feels largely superfluous; we all know who Scherzer is and how dominant he’s been.

When you’re discussing a pitcher of this quality, fit is generally irrelevant. But the Mets had a real need for a top line starting pitcher given how thin their rotation was even before you consider the litany of injury issues Carlos Carrasco and Jacob deGrom faced in 2021. Scherzer did have his own issues at the tail end of the season, running into a bit of a dead-arm period, but that could reasonably be attributed to a change in usage patterns after being traded to the Dodgers. More importantly, Scherzer really hasn’t shown any sort of measurable decline either in surface level results, peripheral metrics, or the quality of his pitches despite being 37.

Given that sterling resume, it’s difficult to quibble with this sort of move. Sure, it’s a big contract, but Scherzer is a future hall of famer and it’s just money. That said, I can’t get quite as excited as many others about this deal given the larger context. Within the 48 hours preceding the Scherzer signing, the Mets were linked to both Kevin Gausman and Jon Gray, then watched both sign elsewhere as they opted instead to pursue Scherzer. Gray is a more complementary piece to be sure, but Gausman is probably a low-end ace himself, not as good as prime Scherzer but excellent in his own right. But therein lies the rub; Scherzer isn’t in his prime anymore, he’s 37. While we’ve not seen any signs of decline yet, the list of pitchers who have posted truly top-level results at his age is vanishingly thin.

Here’s where we run into a wall, because this critique could be interpreted in two different ways. Do the Mets have an effectively infinite budget that they chose not to allocated to both Scherzer and Gausman / Gray (who together will earn less annually than Scherzer will on his own)? Or is there some budget limit - a very high one, relative to the rest of baseball, but still a limit - that prevented the Mets from adding both of the top-end options they were linked to? Frankly, it’s impossible to know the answer.

Moreover, this dilemma is exacerbated by baseball’s current labor situation. As ownership unilaterally imposes a lockout because players won’t accept that more than half of the league’s teams refuse to spend or try to compete, defending ownership on any level feels wrong. Steve Cohen is worth $14 billion dollars and the Mets generate hundreds of millions of dollars in revenue each season, meaning the team’s payroll could be effectively infinite. Not signing Gausman then is a critique of the offseason as a whole rather than one directly connected to Scherzer.

On the other hand, there are going to be limits on spending no matter what we think about ownership’s practices, and some portion of fans do enjoy the game through the lens of an armchair-GM (a topic that I wrote about last offseason). That’s generally the purpose of these grading articles; to dissect moves under the premise that there is a budget and that the challenge is building a championship team within those confines. We need to mention why this view is somewhat problematic amid ongoing labor strife, but I don’t want the general thrust of these articles to be lost.

Under this latter framework, I think it’s fair to question the decision the Mets made. Gausman is essentially the pitching half of Shohei Ohtani, with arguably the best splitter in baseball and an excellent fastball. Given age and recent performance, I think there’s a real chance that Gausman’s median outcome is superior to Scherzer’s. Gausman also has less chance of missing extended time with injury, a worthwhile consideration given the aforementioned instability of the Mets’ rotation. Throw in that the Mets could’ve also had a second starter who has been a get-me-out-of-Coors-and-watch-me-breakout guy for half a decade in Gray and the choice becomes even more questionable.

To reiterate, we should all be ecstatic that Max Scherzer, one the best pitchers ever and a top-5 talent in the modern sport, signed with the Mets. The on-field possibilities are well worth the price the Mets paid (even if he doesn’t deliver optimal $/WAR). However, it appears that the Mets elected to sign the 37-year-old ace instead of bringing in a pair of much younger options at similar cost, one of whom could reasonably be respected to deliver similar quality innings at the top of the rotation. That was the wrong choice I feel, and as such the grade on this move gets dinged, ever so slightly, to an A-.