Why Nationals should keep their loaded staff together, even after adding Max Scherzer

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·MLB columnist
Detroit Tigers starting pitcher Max Scherzer (37) throws in the fourth inning against the Baltimore Orioles during Game 1 of baseball's AL Division Series in Baltimore, Thursday, Oct. 2, 2014. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)
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The easiest thing in the world to do is spend another man's money, especially a billionaire like Ted Lerner's, and so, of course, those giddy to see Max Scherzer joining what already was the best starting rotation in baseball will holler in unison: Don't do it. Don't trade anyone. Keep this Ferrari together and let it purr for one glorious season in a Major League Baseball era rife with Hondas and Toyotas.

Sometimes, the emotion of something so exciting – in this case, Scherzer fetching a seven-year deal from the Washington Nationals – actually dovetails with the logical position, too. Because even though the Nationals find themselves in a situation that warrants a potential trade, more reasons exist not to sell off any pieces of this team than incentives do to shuffle their deck even more.

Most notably, and simply, is the idea of stacking an on-paper super team – of adding Scherzer, the American League Cy Young winner in 2013 who followed with an equally dominant season last year, to a rotation that includes the brilliant Jordan Zimmermann, the dominant Stephen Strasburg, the underappreciated Doug Fister, the filthy Gio Gonzalez and the anonymous Tanner Roark, who happens to have the fourth-best adjusted ERA of any starter in baseball over the past three years, behind three guys named Kershaw, Cueto and King Felix.

And lest you think this plan foolish – it would ostensibly banish Roark and his sustained excellence to the bullpen – please remember the commodity with which we're dealing: pitching. Pitchers get hurt. Every year. Sometimes it's minor. Plenty of times it's major. Zimmermann and Strasburg have undergone Tommy John surgery. Fister and Gonzalez both hit the disabled list last season. Pitching depth isn't a luxury. It's a necessity. And for the Nationals to have the quality of depth they do speaks to how well-built a team this truly is.

Max Scherzer went 18-5 with a 3.15 ERA for the Tigers last season. (AP)
Max Scherzer went 18-5 with a 3.15 ERA for the Tigers last season. (AP)

No apparent holes exist with these Nationals. Their outfield of Bryce Harper, Denard Span and Jayson Werth produces on offense and plays solid defense. Ryan Zimmerman's arm is no longer a problem at first base, Anthony Rendon is brilliant across the diamond at third, Ian Desmond is one of the few power-hitting shortstops remaining and recent acquisition Yunel Escobar should be able to transition to second. Wilson Ramos is at the magic age of 27 and a plenty worthwhile catcher for the best starting staff since the Phillies trotted out Roy Halladay, Cole Hamels, Cliff Lee, Roy Oswalt and What's His Name (that would be Joe Blanton). If there's a weakness, it's a bullpen that needs young, power arms to prove themselves reliable – and should that falter, bullpen pieces are fungible enough the Nationals will find them easily.

Because the beauty of this plan lies in the team's underlying strength. Until the Nationals fully reveal their intentions – and considering just five weeks ago general manager Mike Rizzo said he had none to get into the free-agent market for pitchers, those are deeds better seen than spoken – the chatter about dealing Zimmermann or Fister or even Strasburg will be the hot stove's pyromaniacal cousin. It's juicy because Zimmermann and Fister are free agents-to-be and Strasburg one of the most hyped prospects ever.

Here's the thing: Washington doesn't need to deal any of them. Without a significant hole on the major league roster, flipping any of the aforementioned three – or even Roark, who's got five more years until free agency – would likely bring back prospects. And while they do indeed carry great currency, they simply aren't necessary, not when the Nationals boast a deep minor league system and have such a distinct opportunity to win now.

The best pitching prospect in the minor leagues, Lucas Giolito, is a Nat. So is A.J. Cole, who will be ready to step into the rotation by 2016. Joe Ross is a fast mover, Erick Fedde a high-end talent coming off Tommy John surgery and Reynaldo Lopez just your typical comes-outta-nowhere-throwing-100-mph right-hander. That's five potential frontline starters, and while graduating even one of them toward the top of a major league rotation would be a win, it speaks to Washington's ability to develop talent.

Flipping outfielder Steven Souza, who would've languished on the Nationals' bench, for Ross and shortstop Trea Turner was the sort of deal that allows Washington to remain aggressive here. They've got Turner or Escobar to fill in at shortstop should Desmond walk via free agency after the season, and Wilmer Difo to slide in at second base, and Michael Taylor to jump into center with Span's impending free agency.

Stephen Strasburg went 14-11 with a 3.14 ERA last season. (AP)
Stephen Strasburg went 14-11 with a 3.14 ERA last season. (AP)

Enough of the core remains to keep the Nationals relevant in a National League East with the on-the-come Mets and Marlins and two other teams, Atlanta and Philadelphia, in rebuild mode. Better yet, Zimmermann, Fister and Desmond all warrant qualifying offers that will attach first-round draft picks to their signing elsewhere, giving Washington potentially four first-round picks in the 2016 draft should it not wade into the upper echelon of next offseason's potentially historic free-agent class.

Every reason exists for the Nationals to trot out Scherzer and tell the world this is their team except for one: the money. To which there are a handful of replies, most of which go something like this:

Ted Lerner is a billionaire.

That's billionaire, as in nine zeroes. With a four in front. So $4,000,000,000.

Which means if the Nationals had a budget for, say, $140 million, and they spent, oh, $160 million this season, the difference would account for 0.5 percent of Lerner's fortune.

And it's entirely unnecessary to bother doing it that way, because Lerner bought the Nationals in 2006 for $450 million, and they're worth at least double that now, probably more like $1 billion-plus, giving him a tad bit of wiggle room to reinvest some of that profit.

As he's done, admittedly. Presuming Washington negotiated for a lesser salary this season in Scherzer's deal – say something in the $15 million to $20 million range – it would give the Nationals that $160 million-or-so payroll. That would be $23 million more than last season, $42 million ahead of the year before, almost $70 million more than what they paid three years ago and more than twice as much as they'd ever done before that.

So with the caveat that it's easy to spend a billionaire's money: This is money he has every reason to spend. The Nationals are in the position to buy themselves insurance by keeping Roark in reserve. And they're strong enough in the farm system that weakening this year's team as some sort of a long-term value play isn't necessary. Because there are times to go for it, focus on the present, damn the torpedoes.

Let's not forget: This is why the Nationals shut down Strasburg in 2012. They wanted him here for the future, for other opportunities to win a championship – for this. They are the best team in baseball right now, and no matter how much of a crapshoot October may be – with the short series and Matt Williams' managerial tactics in question and the bullpen and whatever other maladies could befall them – it's theirs to lose.

So turn the key. Step on that gas. Let that baby growl. It would be a shame to turn a Ferrari into any other car when a good reason to do so doesn't exist.

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