Scherzer is Max-ing his value

During the MLB on FOX telecast last Saturday, my colleague Ken Rosenthal reported that the Los Angeles Dodgers and ace Clayton Kershaw had made progress on a seven-year extension worth at least $180 million.

This Saturday’s MLB on FOX lineup featured another top starter who, like Kershaw, is on track to become a free agent after the 2014 season: Detroit Tigers right-hander Max Scherzer.

There’s been little news about Scherzer’s contractual status. Well, other than the obvious: Scherzer’s future earning potential is soaring.

Scherzer, who turns 29 next month, is enjoying a career year. He’s the only 11-0 pitcher in the major leagues. More advanced metrics, including a microscopic 0.913 WHIP (before Saturday’s 10-3 win over the visiting Boston Red Sox), suggest he’d be a worthy choice to start the July 16 MLB All-Star Game on FOX. (More on that later.)

After fanning six Red Sox on Saturday, Scherzer ranks second in the majors with 122 strikeouts. He recently joined Pedro Martinez as the only American League starters with at least six strikeouts in 14 or more consecutive games to begin a season, according to the Elias Sports Bureau.

This raises two questions:

1. Is Scherzer truly as good as he looks right now?

2. If he is, will the Tigers spend what’s necessary to retain him after next year?

The answers: Yes to the first. Maybe to the second.

Pitch value data at suggests Scherzer has the best fastball/slider combination of any starter in the majors. Scherzer’s Fielding Independent Pitching of 2.50 is below his 3.05 ERA, so one could argue that he’s been a little unlucky during the first half.

Scherzer ranks seventh among all major league starters with 4.13 strikeouts per walk since the beginning of last year. He’s been durable, making 30 or more starts in each of the past four years.

In short, he’s making it easy on his agent — who doesn’t need the help.

“Max has become one of the top pitchers in the game,” Scott Boras told me in an interview this week, and it would be difficult to disagree. “The market’s changed for pitching. Whatever the market was, the market will be new when Max hits it.”

Yes, Boras said when. Not if.

Does that mean Scherzer is finished as a Tiger after next season? No. Ask Anibal Sanchez, who became a free agent after Miami traded him to Detroit last July and then re-upped with the Tigers for five years and $80 million.

But Scherzer’s price tag is climbing, because of his performance and the larger market forces. Scherzer is younger than Zack Greinke and has outpitched Greinke since the start of the 2010 season. And Greinke just signed a $147 million contract.

During the current Detroit baseball renaissance — dating back to the 2006 World Series appearance — the Tigers rarely have lost free agents they wanted to keep. Sanchez was on the verge of signing with the Chicago Cubs when owner Mike Ilitch authorized club president/general manager Dave Dombrowski to increase the last offer.

As long as Ilitch owns the team, it can’t be said that the Tigers’ payroll has reached its limit. With Ilitch, the Tigers’ payroll has no limit. Last year, he signed Prince Fielder for $214 million because Victor Martinez suffered a knee injury. This year, he gave Justin Verlander an additional $140 million when two seasons remained on his previous contract.

“Mike Ilitch is an owner of owners,” Boras said, in his distinct and laudatory tone. “He has always made franchise decisions that have allowed his team to be what it is today, and that is one of the winningest franchises in the game.”

(Translation: Mike Ilitch has done a lot of business with the Scott Boras Corporation, from Pudge Rodriguez to Magglio Ordonez to Kenny Rogers to Fielder.)

Yet, the Tigers soon must decide for themselves whether it is wise to hire the most expensive rotation in baseball. The Philadelphia Phillies adopted a similar strategy after the 2010 season. They have not won a playoff series since. Soon, the Phillies may need to reboot an expensive, aging roster.

For 2015 — the first season after Scherzer becomes a free agent — the Tigers have committed $44.8 million to Verlander and Sanchez. Will they give Scherzer his $20 million per year and sign the reliable Doug Fister to a multiyear extension? Fister doesn’t dominate hitters with strikeouts but has been about as effective as Scherzer since arriving in a July 2011 trade with Seattle. (Fister told me earlier this month that he would “love” to be with the Tigers long term, but that the sides haven’t had recent discussions about an extension.)

The Tigers probably will try to sign Scherzer or Fister — perhaps even both — before Opening Day 2014. In the meantime, the team’s fans can debate how many Detroit starters ought to make the AL All-Star team.

Scherzer appears to be a lock. Sanchez looked like a safe bet until he landed on the disabled list. Fister and Verlander have reasonable chances, although Fister’s clunker Friday against the Red Sox won’t help the argument for him.

Scherzer could be the frontrunner to start for the AL, except for one trifling detail: His rotation turn (currently) falls on the final Saturday of the first half. AL/Tigers manager Jim Leyland would prefer that his All-Star starter not pitch on the preceding Saturday or Sunday. The reason is logical: Leyland would like his starter to be rested enough to last two innings.

At a minimum, Scherzer is virtually assured of an All-Star roster spot for the first time in his career. The jersey he’ll be wearing two years from now is far less certain.