Washington Nationals won’t be better with Max Scherzer

OK, so you already know that Max Scherzer’€™s signing with the Nationals, for an unimaginable amount of money that’€™s largely irrelevant unless something awful happens to his right arm, or his spine, or one of his legs.

Seven years is a long time? You bet! He’€™ll be making a lot of dough when he’€™s 36. A lot. But you know, a lot of guys wind up making a lot of dough when they’€™re 36 and the Republic hasn’€™t fallen. Not yet, anyway.

As you’€™ll probably remember from earlier, Scherzer was the best free-agent pitcher on the market for a few months. Any team that could somehow manage to sign Scherzer would immediately get a ton better, and — oh, except that’€™s not actually what’€™s happening here. Not yet, anyway.

See, the Washington Nationals don’€™t have much room to get better. Definitely not a ton better. Last season they won 96 games and racked up the best run differential in the National League. As I’€™m sure you know, teams that do that sort of thing usually fall off a bit the next season, despite their best efforts to get even better.

More to our specific situation, the Nationals’€™ starting pitchers were OUTSTANDING last season, leading the majors with a 3.04 ERA. Could they pitch even better next season? Sure! Strange things happen every year. But all five of the Nationals’€™ starters were good or great last season, and at this point it’€™s hardly apparent which of them will lose his job to Scherzer.

If the Nationals don’€™t trade one of their starters, it seems that Tanner Roark will wind up as a ridiculously overqualified relief pitcher. Which of course wouldn’€™t be the worst thing in the world –€“ the world needs overqualified relief pitchers, too –€“ and Roark’€™s not likely to repeat his performance.

There’€™s yet another possibility, though: If you believe Ken Rosenthal –€“ and really, who doesn’€™t believe Ken Rosenthal? –€“ the Nationals might well trade Jordan Zimmermann. But Zimmermann was even better last season than Roark! Trading Zimmermann hardly makes the Nationals better in 2015 unless he’€™s traded for an outstanding hitter who plays … shoot, I don’€™t know. Second base, I guess? That’€™s about the only spot where the Nats have any room for serious improvement.

Well, also Bryce Harper. But he’€™s not going anywhere soon.

So it seems to me if the Nationals are going to get better, it’€™s got less to do with Max Scherzer than who’€™s playing second base this spring. Because however good Scherzer is, he’€™ll be little better than whomever’€™s spot he gets. Which is why any talk of the Nationals suddenly becoming some sort of SUPERTEAM is at least mildly overblown.

Now, we might grant that while the Nationals won’€™t improve much (and probably not at all) in 2015, we might also agree that having Scherzer under contract for the long term is one hell of a start toward having the best team in the National League East for a few more years. But Scherzer instead of Zimmermann? This seems like a scheme cooked up by a certain SUPERAGENT. Since there’€™s little reason to think Scherzer will actually be any better than Zimmermann over the next (say) seven years. Sometimes we covet what we don’€™t have, and take for granted what we do have.

Which isn’€™t to suggest the Nationals don’€™t know Zimmermann’€™s a tremendous pitcher. They might have good reasons for trading him, or for making us think they might consider trading him. My only real point here is that the Nationals will not, upon getting Max Scherzer’€™s name on a contract, immediately become better than they were last season. The good news? They didn’€™t need to become better. They were the best team in their division last year, and they look like the best team in their division this year. But you still want to be as good as you can be, and the Nationals won’€™t be as good as they can be until they turn their sixth-favorite starting pitcher into someone who can really help them, probably in an everyday role.