Detroit Tigers pitcher Max Scherzer blew away the field Wednesday to win the 2013 American League Cy Young Award, an achievement that should give him untold personal satisfaction and bode well for his long-term future.
Scherzer's short-term outlook, for want of a better term, is day-to-day.
At age 29, Scherzer is getting progressively more expensive and will be eligible for free agency next November. Until the Tigers trade him or sign him to a contract extension, he's destined to spend the winter as a magnet for speculation and the focus of countless rumors. When talent, service time, baseball economics and a voracious media collide, uncertainly is an inevitable byproduct.
"Great players who are young and aren't signed to multiyear contracts always attract attention about movement," said Scott Boras, Scherzer's agent. "Max is no different."
Scherzer isn't the only front-line starter who might be wise to keep his Web surfing to a minimum this winter if he wants to minimize distractions. Tampa Bay Rays left-hander David Price stands an even better chance of being traded given the Rays' ongoing financial challenges, and Jeff Samardzija of the Chicago Cubs has become an attractive commodity judging from the interest expressed by the Arizona Diamondbacks and several other clubs. Price and Samardzija both have four years of service time and will be eligible for free agency a year after Scherzer.
The trade speculation swirling around Price, Scherzer and Samardzija is fueled in part by one of the least distinguished free-agent crops in memory. Justin Verlander, Felix Hernandez, Zack Greinke, Cole Hamels, Adam Wainwright and Matt Cain have all signed megadeals in recent years, leaving behind a group of available pitchers that gives general managers a lukewarm feeling at best.
The list of starters on the free-agent market includes Matt Garza, Ervin Santana, Ubaldo Jimenez and Ricky Nolasco, a quartet that most execs believe won't be worth the money they will command. That's why so many teams are keeping a close watch on Japanese righty Masuhiro Tanaka, who will require a $100 million-plus investment between the posting fee and a long-term contract.
"He's not Yu Darvish, but he's not far off," said Arizona GM Kevin Towers, who anticipates making a run at the standout free agent, who was 24-0 with a 1.27 ERA for Rakuten this season.
For general managers who are deciding how aggressively they want to exploit the scarcity of front-line starters and solicit trade proposals, questions need to be asked and risk/reward scenarios considered. Does one season of a high-impact player who can win a team a pennant outweigh 12 or 18 years of service time from prospects who might never amount to anything? That hinges in large part on a team's payroll and the composition of its roster. The Tigers, who've been in the playoffs three straight seasons, have a much different horizon than the Cubs, who've averaged 68 wins per season since 2010.
If anyone can be considered an authority on the process, it's Tampa Bay GM Andrew Friedman, who needs to stay light on his feet to keep the payroll under wraps. In January 2011, he traded Garza to the Cubs for a package headed by prospects Chris Archer and Hak-Ju Lee. Last year, he sent James Shields to the Kansas City Royals for a package built around outfielder Wil Myers, who just won the American League Rookie of the Year Award.
The Rays are working on a streak of four straight 90-win seasons despite a payroll that has ranked 21st, 29th, 25th and 28th among the 30 big league clubs since 2010. It's a tribute to the team's preparation, the acumen of the Rays' scouts and Friedman's willingness to act aggressively when the right deal presents itself.
"We just can't be afraid to make bold moves," Friedman said. "It's almost become a cliché to say we have one eye on the present and one on the future, but that's absolutely our operating philosophy. It's something we have to do to not only have a chance for near-term success, but to have any chance sustaining it."
Still, the highly public nature of the process makes it more challenging for general managers to navigate the human dynamic. Friedman doesn't feel an obligation to keep players in the loop each step of the way when their names are being bandied about in trade speculation. But a certain amount of sentiment is inevitable with players like Price and Shields, who broke in with the Tampa Bay organization before becoming stars and pricing themselves out of town, as Shields did.
Friedman gives his cell phone number out to his players, but he concedes that there are circumstances when he can be more forthcoming than others.
"We have personal relationships with a lot of these guys, and there are times they're reading something where you want to say, 'Hey, don't believe it,'" Friedman said. "Other times, it might be more real. And if you are not saying anything that says a lot."
When the Diamondbacks publicly shopped Justin Upton in two straight offseasons, it led to some inevitable friction between Upton and the front office. That's why most general managers would rather conduct their trade talks amid a cone of silence. Friedman, Tigers GM David Dombrowski and Cubs GM Jed Hoyer would only discuss their prized pitchers in generalities rather than focus on the particulars.
General managers know it does them little good to broadcast their Hot Stove plans to the world. They also know they'll have to deal with some fallout when highly publicized trade talks go nowhere.
"I think the players are pretty good at blocking it out, especially guys who've been through a lot of rumors and haven't been traded in the past," Hoyer said. "They probably realize a lot of it is noise and they have to just tune it out.
"Players understand the economics of the game pretty well, and they know if you're in a bigger market, your name is going to get floated out there a lot more often. Sometimes, to avoid it, you have to make big, bold, declarative statements [as a general manager]. Everyone is reluctant to do that because no one ever wants to look like a liar later on. I think there's a certain level of that we have to live with as an industry."
Most impartial baseball observers seriously question whether the Tigers will move Scherzer this winter even if they're unable to sign him to a multiyear extension and he enters the 2014 season as a contractual lame duck. There was reason for encouragement Wednesday when Boras, who has a reputation for taking his players the distance until they reach free agency, said Scherzer will keep an open mind if the Tigers approach him about an extension in the coming weeks.
The Tigers desperately want to win a title for owner Mike Ilitch, who bought the team in 1992 and turns 85 next summer. With Scherzer, Verlander and AL ERA champion Anibal Sanchez in the rotation and a lineup that includes Miguel Cabrera, Prince Fielder, Torii Hunter and Victor Martinez, the Tigers have one of baseball's highest payrolls and lofty expectations each year in spring training. They don't have the luxury of trading Scherzer unless they can add at least two young players who can contribute immediately toward that goal.
"I don't think trading Scherzer makes sense because of the owner and the whole situation there," said an executive with a National League club. "It's a team built to win right now, and he's one of the best pitchers in all of baseball. Even if the Tigers don't re-sign him, they'll get a draft pick for him. Why would you ever trade that guy? It doesn't make any sense to me."
The next few weeks and months will determine if Scherzer and Price take aim at their second Cy Young Awards with their current teams or in new uniforms come spring training. In the meantime, get ready for a whole lot of noise.