As snow fell at Nationals Park on Wednesday afternoon, a highlight reel of Max Scherzer’s best moments looped on the jumbotron in right-center field.
Within the hour, a process that began just after New Year’s Day and intensified in recent weeks came to an end at a glossy wooden conference table. With Nationals general manager Mike Rizzo on his left and agent Scott Boras on his right, Scherzer officially signed a seven-year contract worth $210 million, the most lucrative deal ever signed by a right-handed pitcher. The 30-year-old then walked to a press conference room in the bowels of the stadium, where he slid a white No. 31 jersey over his suit.
“You work so hard to put yourself in this position,” Scherzer said in his introductory press conference. “I don’t play this game for money, but at the same time, when you have an offer like that, it just makes you go, ‘Wow.’ I’m very fortunate to be in this position.”
Scherzer posed for pictures with the team’s brass, including Rizzo and manager Matt Williams, as one of his new teammates, Jayson Werth, watched from the front row of seats off to one side of the room. A group of Nationals owners, including managing principal owner Ted Lerner and his son, Mark, sat off to the other.
Scherzer would not have made it to this point had he not taken a calculated risk and rejected a contract offer from the Detroit Tigers before last season. He would not have made it there without Boras and Rizzo, who crafted a one-of-a-kind deal to fit the needs of both sides. And, above all else, Scherzer would not have made it there without the Lerners, who assumed the financial obligation for the franchise-altering move.
“With the acquisition of Max, ownership has allowed us to do our business in the best way we can as far as the baseball side goes,” Rizzo said. “They’ve given us all the ammunition that we need to put together a quality team.”
The addition of Scherzer will have a ripple effect throughout the organization for two decades. In the short-term, it gives the Nationals another front-line starter to add to a group that already featured former No. 1 overall pick Stephen Strasburg and two-time all-star Jordan Zimmermann. That rotation has made Washington the odds-on favorite in Las Vegas to win the World Series.
The long-term implications of Scherzer’s arrival, however, are both more significant and more complex. The 2013 Cy Young Award winner will serve as a form of insurance should Zimmermann, Strasburg or right-hander Doug Fister leave in free agency or be included in a trade. The structure of Scherzer’s deal, which will pay him $15 million annually through 2028, will be on the books long after his tenure in Washington is over.
“If that [deferral] didn’t happen, there wouldn’t have been a deal,” Mark Lerner said. “We had to make it work for us financially.”
Rizzo, Boras and Ted Lerner worked together to construct the contract , which included the large deferral and a record $50 million signing bonus. The Nationals knew that the true value of Scherzer’s contract would deteriorate over time due to inflation. Boras knew that Scherzer could skirt some of Washington’s income taxes and save some money by establishing residency in Florida.
Boras said he met multiple times with Ted Lerner, 89, and his wife, Annette, to discuss a possible deal.
“In the end, you have to deliver a value for the team and a value for the player,” Boras said. “Doing that requires really knowledge of structure. In this case, it was a very unique signing bonus — a $50 million signing bonus — and then how things are paid, and then the tax code itself. What you end up with is a dynamic that in this case worked well for both.”
The Nationals had been linked to Scherzer for much of the offseason. Rizzo played a role in drafting Scherzer with the No. 11 pick when he was with the Arizona Diamondbacks in 2006. Williams managed Scherzer in Double-A Mobile the following year.
When Scherzer hit free agency, he began to whittle down his list of potential destinations by first and foremost thinking about where he wanted to play. At the same time, Boras tried to identify which teams were seriously interested in the pitcher, and which ones could afford to sign him.
The Nationals had not actively pursued Scherzer before or during the winter meetings in mid-December, according to Mark Lerner. But at the beginning of January, Scherzer said they “started knocking on the door,” and he expressed his interest in them to Boras. In his mind, the allure of Washington was clear.
“I think this team is capable of winning and winning a lot,” Scherzer said. “So when you look at the near term and long term, this is an organization you want to be a part of.”
“At a wedding, I don’t think you ever talk about who you’ve been dating,” Boras said.
As the deal was being finalized, Scherzer received a text from Fister, his former teammate in Detroit. Scherzer also worked out with Nationals reliever Matt Thornton, picking his brain about the organization and the clubhouse he would soon be joining.
In many ways, Scherzer’s arrival signals a new era in D.C. baseball, a tremendous push toward both a successful present and steady future. Yet it also illustrates just how far the franchise has come.
“We all remember those days when we had 100 losses,” Mark Lerner said. “I think the signing of Jayson Werth changed that perception. I think when we turned the corner in ‘11 and ‘12, and you can see the quality of people we’re putting in our clubhouse and making the changes we were making as an organization — I think that people saw what was coming.”
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