May 19, 2024

Max Scherzer trade involves real risk for Mets, Rangers

Less than 24 hours ago, after pitching seven strong innings in a Mets victory, Max Scherzer publicly lamented his team’s decision to trade closer David Robertson to the division rival Marlins, a team improbably — yet comfortably — ahead of New York in the standings as the trade deadline fast approaches. 

“I’ve probably got to have a conversation with the front office,” Scherzer revealed. “You traded our closer away.”

It’s possible Scherzer already knew something was up in relation to his own status on the team, which was reportedly being evaluated behind the scenes prior to Saturday’s bombshell trade that sent him to Texas. What a conversation they must have had.

It took a few extra hours, but Scherzer ultimately agreed to the deal that abruptly concludes his Mets tenure and launches one with a Rangers team in the thick of a playoff push. In exchange for the future Hall of Famer, New York is receiving Luisangel Acuña, an athletic shortstop widely considered roughly one of the 50-80 best prospects in baseball. And yes, he’s the younger brother of Braves superstar Ronald Acuña Jr. 

We’ll get to Texas in a moment, but let’s dig into what this move says about the Mets. Rather than keep the most expensive roster in MLB history together and pursue a long-shot run at a wild-card spot, general manager Billy Eppler — and owner Steve Cohen — have made their intentions for this deadline clear. In short, the only way to make the most out of this brutally disappointing season is to make significant moves to improve the team’s future outlook. Evidently, trading away pending free agents like Robertson was not enough. Moving off Scherzer helps add more potential impact talent to a farm system that desperately needs revitalization.

That, too, comes at a major cost. Scherzer’s current contract calls for him to make roughly $16 million for the rest of this season and another $43 million in 2024. Salaries of this magnitude severely impact the caliber of players heading the other way in any potential trade. No matter Scherzer’s talent or pedigree as the ultimate competitor and winner, there is sizable risk in acquiring him at this age and at that cost. In turn, the Mets’ return largely hinged on how much cash they offered to cover the remainder of Scherzer’s deal. 

For the richest owner in baseball, that bill — which is reportedly a whopping $35 million-plus — was well worth the opportunity to further build the Mets’ farm system. To be clear, this was not a deal meant to shed money off the books for the sake of financial flexibility. It was an opportunity to essentially acquire top-end talent through a uniquely expensive vehicle, which in this case is paying someone a lot of money to play for another team. 

What’s also fascinating is that the prospect “haul” often associated with trades of this magnitude was actually just one player. Acuña is a 21-year-old shortstop currently hitting .315/.377/.453 in Double-A with seven homers and 42 steals. Though he may not possess the same power potential of big bro, Acuña is a dynamic talent capable of impacting the game both at the plate and on the bases. His physical tools have long impressed evaluators, but it’s his performance in Double-A that has thrust him into the middle portion of top-100 lists across the industry. 

When raw ability starts to translate to high-end production, prospect stock can soar in a hurry — especially when said prospect is related to one of the best players on the planet.

Any deal involving Scherzer was going to be unique to begin with, but this 1-for-1 swap boldly bucks the trend in recent years of teams acquiring a package of prospects when dealing away premium big-league talent. This is a massive bet on a singular player to deliver a promising return for Scherzer rather than landing a group of prospect dice for the organization to roll in hopes of producing a future big-league contributor. 

For namesake alone, Acuña’s development was already being watched closely as he climbed the minor-league ladder. Now, the player he becomes will be one of the bigger storylines for the Mets for the next decade. No pressure, kid. 

Similar to the Robertson deal with Miami, the Mets are acquiring significant position-player upside from Texas. It’s smart to target the best players available in any trade regardless of position. However, a dearth of pitching talent remains in the Mets’ farm even after these trades — depth that will only be tested further both this year and next with Scherzer out the door. 

It’s possible New York will just spend wild on arms this winter in free agency to make up for this, but this lack of depth is part of what got the Mets in this noncompetitive mess in the first place. It can’t all be fixed in one deadline, but it will be interesting to see what — if any — pitching talent New York can reel in from any other deals before Tuesday’s deadline. 

Acuña is surely tough to part with for the Rangers, but him being the only one heading to New York allows for the inclusion of more prospects in any other deadline deals to improve the roster. Plus, owing a player of Scherzer’s caliber just $22.5 million for the rest of this year and all of next season could enable significant flexibility to add payroll to other parts of the roster.

Forget the financials, though: What is Texas actually getting in Scherzer right now? This is a team clearly all-in on pursuing a pennant, with the three-time Cy Young winner obviously expected to team with Nathan Eovaldi and front the Rangers’ rotation for the stretch run — a development spawned by Scherzer’s former Mets teammate Jacob deGrom being sidelined for the year following Tommy John surgery.

Tune in for the right start — like his seven scoreless innings against the Dodgers a couple weeks ago — and Scherzer still looks like his Hall of Fame self. He delivered another strong seven innings on Friday against the Nationals. The velocity is down a little bit, but for the most part, his stuff and diverse five-pitch mix are still largely intact. 

But while Scherzer’s 27.3% strikeout rate is above league average, it’s also the lowest mark he’s had in any season since 2011, and his 6.8% walk rate is comfortably above the 5.4% he’d exhibited over the previous five seasons. Even with the slight downtick in whiffs and uptick in free passes, the biggest thing contributing to his middling 4.01 ERA is the simple fact that way too many batted balls off him have been soaring over the fence. 

Luis Garcia’s home run on Friday night was the 23rd allowed by Scherzer this year, which sits behind only Aaron Nola (24) for the most allowed in the National League. Scherzer’s 1.9 HR/9 is easily the worst mark of his career. 

The risk may have been mitigated financially for Texas, but Scherzer — with both his injury history and signs of slight decline this year — cannot be considered a sure thing at this stage. He’s still capable of delivering dominant outings, but if the Rangers are expecting him to dominate post-trade to the degree that he did two years ago with the Dodgers, they might be sorely disappointed. If anything, the move is another reminder of just how all-in this organization is on winning right now. It might not work, but you gotta respect it. 

As for the Mets, the decision to move on from Scherzer amid a lost season might turn out to be a prudent one. However, it will also forever serve as a painful reminder of just how far off course 2023 went for a historically expensive team with World Series aspirations. Beyond that, there remain ample questions about the club’s overall pitching plans moving forward should they expect to contend in 2024. With a few days still remaining before the deadline, we’ll see how much clarity we gain — if any — on that front. 

With one expensive Band-Aid ripped off by moving Scherzer, might the Mets also consider a similarly structured deal to unload Justin Verlander? That might be a bridge too far if the Mets are serious about contending next year. But if team brass continue to prioritize the bigger picture of the franchise’s future, perhaps they could view such a deal as worth pursuing. Whether Verlander follows Scherzer out of Queens in the next few days, their short-lived, high-profile reunion was more trick than treat.

Jordan Shusterman is half of @CespedesBBQ and a baseball writer for FOX Sports. He has covered baseball for his entire adult life, most notably for MLB.com, DAZN and The Ringer. He’s a Mariners fan living in the Eastern Time Zone, which means he loves a good 10 p.m. first pitch. You can follow him on Twitter @j_shusterman_. 


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