It’s been one of the overarching themes of the offseason for followers of the Detroit Tigers. “Will the Tigers and Max Scherzer work out a contract extension?”, then “now that the Prince Fielder money is off the books, will the Tigers spend the money on Scherzer?”, and finally “Tigers roster building appears complete, is a Scherzer deal next?”.
And you can’t blame writers and fans for their interest. He’s been one of the more excellent pitchers in the American League (if not all of baseball) for the last couple of years – and an extension would be welcome as long as we’re not talking about a record-breaking contract – but I’m not sure that Scherzer should be the number one priority in this regard.
Fans have developed a short fuse with Jackson particularly because of his propensity to strikeout at an elevated rate, but also because he hasn’t developed into an exceptional player in any of the traditional facets of the game. He doesn’t steal many bases, he doesn’t hit a ton of home runs, he doesn’t make highlight reel diving catches in the field, and hasn’t earned any black ink on the back of his baseball card. But it’s exactly all of these reasons that make a prime candidate for a long-term extension. He doesn’t really do anything that the market has traditionally valued*, but he does do a lot of things that combine to make him in incredibly valuable player.
*He’s a little bit like Mike Trout in this regard (though obviously on a much different scale). Trout isn’t as good of a hitter as Miguel Cabrera, and neither is he probably the game’s best base runner or defender, but he’s really, really good at every facet of the game. So good, that he’s been the best player in the game (by a lot) the last two seasons.
Jackson might not ever win a gold glove in center field, but he is an above average defender at one of the more difficult positions on the field. He strikes out more than the average player does, but he’s been an above average hitter for his career. He doesn’t steal a lot of bases for a fast guy, but he’s good at going first-to-third and second-to-home and remains a better-than-average on the base paths. Put that all in a blender and what you actually get is a borderline All-Star player who has been worth nearly four wins a season over the first four years of his career.
In fact, since he came into the league in 2010, Jackson ranks 35th in all of baseball in fWAR (FanGraphs) at 14.6. Here are the three players directly in front of him on that list: Shin-Soo Choo (14.9 WAR), Prince Fielder (14.7 WAR), Jose Reyes (14.7 WAR). All three are on nine-figure contracts with AAV near (or above $20 million). Jackson might be willing to sell 3-5 of his free agent years for less than $15 million per season (somewhat similar to what Andrew McCutchen did two years ago). Depending on your preferred dollars-to-WAR conversion, Jackson’s career to-date has been worth anywhere between $18-$25 million annually.
The problem with a Max Scherzer extension is that it probably wouldn’t be a good deal for the club. He was just named the best pitcher in the American League (and the starter of the All-Star game), and since he’s only a year away from free agency, he isn’t likely to give much of a discount on the long-term gain. Jackson, on the other hand, hasn’t collected the individual accolades and is a year further away from hitting the free market. At the same time he (1) doesn’t have the numbers that make agents grandstand about hundreds millions of dollars and (2) may be more willing to trade away some future earnings potential for the guarantee of a significant payday.