Risky business: Should you trust Max Scherzer, Justin Verlander or breakout aces on MLB free agent market?

·7-min read

Just days after the conclusion of the World Series, MLB’s general managers are beginning their annual meetings, firing up what might be a disjointed hot stove season.

Collective bargaining agreement negotiations and the threat of a work stoppage on Dec. 2 loom over baseball’s offseason, but stars will be signed and rosters will be filled. 

Having covered the high-powered shortstop class, it’s time to take on a group of starting pitchers that is bursting at the seams with questions, risks and wildly divergent opinions. Let’s play a game of “Would you rather?” to help you sort through your own GM tendencies — or at least figure out where to place your hopes for your favorite team.

To inform the hypotheticals, we’ll be using the median crowdsourced contract projections from FanGraphs as a guide for what each free agent is likely to command on the market.

Atlanta, GA - October 17: Los Angeles Dodgers starting pitcher Max Scherzer delivers a pitch during the third inning in game two in the 2021 National League Championship Series against the Atlanta Braves at Truist Park on Sunday, Oct. 17, 2021 in Atlanta, GA.(Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)
Max Scherzer was phenomenal down the stretch for the Los Angeles Dodgers, but durability concerns cropped up in the postseason. (Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)

Max Scherzer or Kevin Gausman?

Scherzer contract projection: 3 years, $96 million ($32 million average annual value)

Gausman contract projection: 4 years, $76 million ($19 million AAV)

Max Scherzer, who could soon win his fourth Cy Young Award, is coming off another sterling season that saw him move from the Washington Nationals to the Los Angeles Dodgers in an all-time showstopper of a trade and then thrive in the heat of the pennant race.

Kevin Gausman was in the running for that same Cy Young nod through much of the 2021 season before falling off the pace a bit down the stretch. Evaluators’ opinions on his place in this starting pitcher class run the gamut. His two years in San Francisco have seen him complete a transformation from talented but frustratingly average starter into a splitter-slinging star.

Since the start of 2020’s COVID-shortened season, Gausman has fired 251 2/3 innings with a 3.00 ERA — 38 percent better than the adjusted league average — and struck out 30% of the batters he’s faced. Scherzer, over the same two seasons, has thrown 246 2/3 innings with a 2.81 ERA — 49 percent better than average — with a 33.6% strikeout rate.

In short, Gausman has been awesome since the Reds selected him off waivers in August 2019 and used him as a reliever. Scherzer, of course, has been awesome for well over a decade. And therein lies the rub: Do you trust Gausman’s relatively newfound success to continue apace or Scherzer’s dominance to continue as he approaches age 40?

Since 2013, Scherzer has thrown 114 more innings than any other pitcher in baseball and simultaneously tallied the best strikeout rate of any starter while doing it. If you needed an ace over that time period, he was your best bet to both be on the mound and be great. But that history, which will land him in the Hall of Fame, is only prologue to predicting whether he can keep that act up. He is 37 years old, and recent playoff runs have shown that there are limits to even Mad Max’s durability. He did not make his scheduled start in what turned out to be the Dodgers’ final game of 2021 because of lingering arm fatigue.

The risks for Gausman are less about durability of his arm — he will turn 31 in January and hasn’t experienced any major injury concerns as a major leaguer — and more about the sustainability of his level of performance. He relies heavily on just the fastball and splitter, and the splitter is a notoriously fickle pitch that could come with more home run risk in a less forgiving home ballpark.

Signing Gausman is very likely to get you a very good pitcher for the next half decade, but there are reasonable doubts about whether he would be a Game 1 starter (he wasn’t for the Giants after the emergence of Logan Webb) or wild-card game trump card. Signing Scherzer, meanwhile, still could be the difference in the biggest game of virtually anyone’s season for at least the next year or two.

Robbie Ray or Marcus Stroman?

Ray contract projection: 4 years, $72 million ($18 million AAV)

Stroman contract projection: 4 years, $72 million ($18 million AAV)

The crowdsourced contract projections are fascinating in this case, landing on identical deals for extremely different pitchers. (I do think the ultimate winner in the Ray sweepstakes will end up above that figure in an offseason where he’s a Cy Young finalist, but the deals for these two are liable to be quite similar.)

Robbie Ray looked broken just a year-and-a-half ago, walking a batter per inning in the first half of 2020 with the Arizona Diamondbacks — an absurd rate of wildness that threatened his viability as a major-league starter. And even during more successful seasons early in his career, walks were always the bugaboo. But with the Toronto Blue Jays, who acquired him in a 2020 trade and then quickly re-signed him for 2021, Ray kept his prodigious strikeout totals and limited the walks. There has never been any question that his pitches are superb, especially from a left-hander, but envisioning more years like 2021 requires a leap of faith that his control issues are solved permanently.

Marcus Stroman, on the other hand, is probably the safest bet of any free agent pitcher. Aside from one injury-dented year in 2018, Stroman has been a modicum of consistency. He frustrates hitters with a darting sinker-slider combo, gets grounders and avoids homers. After opting out of the 2020 season, he came back in 2021 and replicated his terrific 2019 on a one-year deal with the New York Mets.

This is basically a case of a high-risk, high-maintenance moonshot vs. a set it and forget it No. 2 starter. Ray could be a totally unleashed ace now, or he could turn back into a ball-heaving pumpkin. Every shred of evidence we have says Stroman is good for 33 starts where he will limit the all-important home run and post an ERA right around 3.00. Someone will go for the upside, but the error bars on Ray might still be too big for comfort.

HOUSTON, TEXAS - OCTOBER 29:  Justin Verlander #35 of the Houston Astros looks to first base against the Washington Nationals during the third inning in Game Six of the 2019 World Series at Minute Maid Park on October 29, 2019 in Houston, Texas. (Photo by Elsa/Getty Images)
Can Justin Verlander bounce back to ace status at age 39? (Photo by Elsa/Getty Images)

Justin Verlander or Noah Syndergaard?

Verlander contract projection: 1 year, $20 million

Syndergaard contract projection: 1 year, $18.4 million

Now for blind dart throw portion of the market. Justin Verlander hasn’t pitched since 2020’s belated opening day due to Tommy John surgery, and turns 39 in February. Noah Syndergaard is a relatively youthful 29 years old and also underwent Tommy John in the summer of 2020, but has experienced a series of concerning setbacks and limitations in his comeback.

There’s almost no need to enumerate the risk with Verlander. He’s just remarkably old to be pitching in the majors, much less at a high level. But like Scherzer, everything about his career has been remarkable. Doubting his ability to perform now is blatantly disregarding 15 years of evidence, a good deal of it recent. In 2019, he averaged 94.7 mph on his fastball and won the Cy Young.

Ever since a strong 2016, Syndergaard has struggled to make good on the potential evident in his high 90s heat and devastating slider. His 2019 didn’t even produce a better than average ERA, despite rosier underlying numbers. In a strikeout-heavy landscape where Ks translate to success for most pitchers, Syndergaard hasn’t managed a strikeout rate over 25% since 2017, while Verlander was over 34% in each of his seasons with the Houston Astros. More problematic: Syndergaard was reportedly advised by doctors not to throw that slider or any other breaking stuff during his brief return to pitching in 2021.

Both pitchers may be most inclined to return to their existing teams, and each has a qualifying offer to do so. The crowd projects Syndergaard will do just that and try to prove his health with the New York Mets. Verlander threw for scouts recently, apparently with promising velocity, but the Astros may still have the inside track.

This is more a product of their pre-injury track records than any parsing of the risk factors, but both the Steamer and PECOTA projection systems peg Verlander to outperform Syndergaard. Frankly, I’m willing to agree with the computers: If it’s a battle of one-year deals, age is just a number in cloud of factors that mostly point toward Verlander being the better bet.

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