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Max Scherzer fortifies a taxed Dodgers pitching staff

6-player trade adds 3-time Cy Young Award winner to LA’s rotation

Washington Nationals v Los Angeles Dodgers Photo by Michael Owens/Getty Images

On July 12, National League manager Dave Roberts picked Max Scherzer to start on the mound in the next day in the All-Star Game, calling the decision “a no-brainer.

Now, with the Dodgers, Roberts gets to decide when Scherzer’s next start will be, plus a few more after that. The Nationals on Friday traded the three-time Cy Young Award winner to Los Angeles along with infielder Trea Turner, a blockbuster deal that sent the Dodgers’ top two prospects — Keibert Ruiz and Josiah Gray — along with pitcher Gerardo Carrillo and outfielder Donovan Casey to Washington.

The inclusion of Turner, who is not a free agent until after the 2022 season, is an important aspect of the trade, but for now let’s focus on the pitching side of the deal.

Because Scherzer has over 10 years of major league service time, with at least the last five years coming with the same team (this is his seventh season with the Nationals), he had the right to veto any trade. So he had a say in where he was dealt.

The 37-year-old has a 2.76 ERA and 3.46 FIP in 19 starts this season, and his 34.3-percent strikeout rate is the best in the majors among qualified pitchers.

Scherzer was scratched from his start last Saturday with right triceps discomfort, but was back on the mound Thursday afternoon in Philadelphia, allowing only one run on three hits in six innings.

The Dodgers fortify a rotation that is currently without three of its five starters from the opening day roster. Clayton Kershaw, out since the first week of July with left forearm/elbow inflammation, is expected back perhaps by next weekend, but Dustin May is out for the season after Tommy John surgery. Trevor Bauer has been on administrative leave for nearly a month while under investigation through MLB’s joint domestic violence, sexual assault, and child abuse policy, isn’t expected back any time soon, and, even if he was, reportedly wouldn’t be welcomed by a majority of his teammates.

Tony Gonsolin (2.38 ERA, 4.12 FIP) and David Price (3.63 ERA, 3.85 FIP) have been effective, but haven’t pitched deep into games. Gonsolin has lasted beyond four innings twice in his nine games, and Price — who was in the bullpen for three months after not pitching in 2020 — has gone past four innings twice in his four starts.

Dodgers pitching deep

Month Games 6-IP games 5-IP games
Month Games 6-IP games 5-IP games
April 27 21 25
May 27 18 21
June 26 17 20
July 24 7 13
Source: Baseball Reference

Dodgers relief pitchers in July have thrown nearly as many innings (97⅓) as the starters (113⅔), a pace that is both taxing and requires a constant roster churn, such that the team has used 21 different pitchers this month alone.

Scherzer is averaging 5.84 innings per start this season, and has lasted at least six innings in 13 of his 19 starts.

In the last week, the 23-year-old Gray made his major league debut, pitching four innings in both of his games — one bulk relief role, and one start. He missed a lot of bats, with 13 strikeouts in those eight innings, but also allowed four home runs and six runs.

“We’ve always seen Jojo as a starter, and we still do. To keep him stretched out and making starts I think is best for him and for the Dodgers,” Roberts said Sunday. “But if we do get to a point where we see his value for the ‘21 major league club in the ‘pen, I’m sure we’ll have that conversation.”

Ultimately, Gray’s value for the 2021 Dodgers ended up as part of the package sent to Washington.

But perhaps more importantly, unlike many of the rumored pitchers on the trade market, Scherzer is one who will definitely start in the postseason. In his career, Scherzer has a 3.38 ERA in 112 postseason innings over 22 games (18 starts), including a 2.40 ERA with 37 strikeouts in 30 innings during the Nationals’ 2019 championship run in October.

Scherzer has a $35 million salary this season, so with 66 days left in the season the Dodgers are on the hook for roughly $12.4 million. Though all of that salary is deferred to 2022-28, so for competitive balance tax purposes Scherzer’s 2021 salary is reduced a bit to account for that.

By lessening the burden on a busy bullpen, that’s money well spent.