There are only a few scenarios that could end with the St. Louis Cardinals signing top free agent starting pitcher Max Scherzer. Although unlikely, it's certainly plausible.
A New York Post column lists the Cardinals along with the Detroit tigers and Chicago Cubs as the most likely destination for the Cy Young Award winner.
Here are a few things that would have to line up for a match with St. Louis to be possible:
First, forget agent Scott Boras' talk about a guaranteed $200 million contract. Scherzer won't end up in St. Louis under any circumstances if he gets that kind of cash. He's going to have to settle for a mighty hometown discount to end up in Cardinals red. Six years would seem to be the high end of a contract as opposed to the 7-8 Boras is demanding.
Seeing Scherzer's price come down 20-25 percent isn't as impossible as it might have seemed at the start of the off-season.
Next, the New York Yankees and the Los Angeles Dodgers have refused to get involved in the bidding. If they stay on the sidelines -- and don't let Boras imply that they are in on the derby as mystery teams to drive up prices -- it's difficult to imagine the market reaching its highest potential. The Boston Red Sox and the San Francisco Giants were said to be in on fellow free agent ace Jon Lester. But when the dust settled, they didn't make competitive bids. That fact, alone, would seem to indicate that they're not going to push the market for Scherzer. Both teams signed more affordable starters in Justin Masterson and Jake Peavy in the meantime, further depleting their war chests.
Then, the Cubs would have to stay out of things. The Cubs have indicated that they're not going to go after Scherzer after signing Lester to a huge deal. But after years of trading off their expensive stars, the Wee Bears are probably the MLB team that could most easily afford the addition of Scherzer to their payroll.
I still believe the most likely landing spot for Scherzer is his most recent team, the Tigers. Why hasn't a deal been wrapped up already? Detroit ownership is said to have been extremely put off by their ace flatly rejecting their effort to sign him to an extension in the spring. Ownership has supposedly issued an edict that they $144 million contract that was offered won't be improved, take it or leave it. As recently as this week the Tigers have maintained they haven't talked to Boras about Scherzer and that they have no plans to do so in the future. The question is, will Detroit soften that stance and come up a little bit to prevent its best pitcher from splitting?
If the Cardinals offer a contract similar to what the Tigers have on the table, Scherzer might decide to come home to pitch in St. Louis. But the MLB Players Association doesn't like it when top free agents sign discounted contracts. If the Cardinals offered $150 million over six years and Detroit upped its offer to $160 or better, there would be a lot of pressure on Scherzer to keep the market as high as possible.
If all the big spenders stay out of things and the Tigers remain firm, the possibility exists that the Cardinals -- if they so desired -- could make a successful play for Scherzer. Still, Matt Holliday has revealed that he told Boras he planned to sign with the Cardinals when he was a free agent and Boras was such a jerk in negotiations that St. Louis GM John Mozeliak walked away and almost didn't come back.
I think the team's best bet to land Scherzer would be to get creative with an offer that, like many NFL contracts or the pact the Marlins gave Giancarlo Stanton, looks like much more than it really is.
If I was Mozeliak, I'd stick at a maximum guarantee of $150 over six years or, potentially, $160 million over seven if it was Scherzer's ultimate goal to get more than Lester. The extra season would less put the Redbirds on the hook for another year than it would allow the team to lower the AAV. In effect, it would be a deferment. Six years would run through Scherzer's 36th birthday. Anything longer would expose the Cardinals to spending big money for a pitcher past his prime. But a seventh year at a lower average would be a throwaway.
Another option: Redbirds could sweeten the pot by adding a couple of vesting option years that would give the contract the potential of $200 million over eight seasons, no matter how unlikely those additional seasons are to kick in. Make the options steep. If he pitches 200 innings for each of the first six years of the deal, the first option year kicks in. If he pitches 200 in the seventh, he gets an eighth year. That arrangement would guarantee the options wouldn't vest if Scherzer suffered a significant injury or if he became ineffective and was pushed to the bullpen or released.
Another thing the Cardinals could do would be to offer Scherzer an opt out after three or four years. With ever-escalating salaries, Scherzer might find it appealing to hit the open market again. On it's face it would look like a term that would benefit the player. But the Cardinals would avoid most of the risk of injury or decline if Scherzer opted out at 33 years old. If he opted out, the Cardinals would end up paying $75 million over three years. That deal would be too sweet to pass up if Scherzer took it straight up.