Max Scherzer is a bundle of energy and competitive fire. He’s also smart and opinionated and loves the big stage. Teammates say he trains so meticulously and pitches with so much joy that he helps them elevate their games, too. Had the Texas Rangers stopped on Saturday after acquiring the three-time Cy Young Award winner from the New York Mets for cash and a prospect, that alone would have improved the team significantly.
For most of their history, stopping there is precisely what the Rangers would have done. These days, with owner Ray Davis exhausted by six straight losing seasons and general manager Chris Young fearlessly working to end that streak, they’re the most aggressive team in baseball. In the last two off-seasons, the Rangers have spent $800 million on free-agent players and lured three-time World Series–winning manager Bruce Bochy out of retirement. This year, the turnaround has finally materialized, and the Rangers have been atop the American League West division on all but one day of the season.
But in the weeks leading up to Tuesday’s MLB trade deadline, the team’s warts began to show. The pitching staff was coming undone with injuries and poor performances, and it was becoming more apparent than ever that the Rangers would need more than the best offense in baseball to succeed in the playoffs. Young started making moves well before the deadline, acquiring reliever Aroldis Chapman from the Kansas City Royals on June 30.
Then, this weekend, trading for Scherzer was Young’s opening act. On Sunday, the GM made another big deal that brought left-handed starter Jordan Montgomery and right-handed reliever Chris Stratton to Texas from the St. Louis Cardinals in exchange for two prospects and pitcher John King. In doing so, the Rangers’ payroll blew past MLB’s $233 million luxury tax threshold by around $15 million—the league charges a 20 percent tax for every dollar spent over the limit. “I like where we are right now,” Young told reporters on Sunday. “I think that by improving our starting pitching, we’re going to make our bullpen better. But we’ll continue to stay open-minded and see what else materializes.”
Young also still has time to address a lagging offense that is missing two injured All-Stars, shortstop Corey Seager and catcher Jonah Heim. The Rangers, who lost three straight to the San Diego Padres over the weekend, mustered just four runs in those games. Seager could return from his thumb injury this week, but Heim’s sore wrist will keep him out longer. “Getting Corey back will be huge,” Young said. “Our offense is very good. We have versatility and depth. But we’ll stay open-minded on any way to improve.”
In acquiring Scherzer, Young did not completely replace his injured ace, Jacob deGrom, who got a five-year, $185 million deal last winter. But with Scherzer and Montgomery joining Nathan Eovaldi, Young has crafted a potentially formidable rotation for the postseason. (Eovaldi was placed on the fifteen-day injured list Sunday with elbow soreness, but Bochy said the team is confident he’ll be back on the mound when he’s eligible.)
Your move, Houston. No matter what else Young does, the focus is on how the Astros will respond in their quest for a seventh straight playoff appearance and fifth trip to the World Series in seven seasons. This season has been a challenge, with stars Yordan Álvarez and José Altuve missing much of the season with injuries and a once-dominant pitching rotation decimated by the free-agent departure of 2022 American League Cy Young Award–winner Justin Verlander, as well as injuries to Luis Garcia, Lance McCullers Jr., and José Urquidy.
Houston’s remaining healthy pitchers have performed admirably for most of the season, but with three rookies, the Astros bullpen appears to be wearing down and growing increasingly ineffective. General manager Dana Brown’s weekend acquisition of Kendall Graveman for catching prospect Korey Lee will help, but thanks to the Rangers’ aggressive deadline moves, Houston is facing pressure to do more.
Do they go all in for a reunion with Verlander, who was part of two championship teams in Houston before leaving in free agency after last season? Brown said on Sunday he was not even in the market for a starting pitcher. Seriously? Houston’s pitching staff had a 4.72 earned run average in July, among the ten worst in the game. His top four relievers—Ryan Pressly, Bryan Abreu, Phil Maton, and Hector Neris—are among the most-used in baseball, all with at least 47 appearances.
In all likelihood, Brown was either deflecting the topic or spinning when he dismissed talk of beefing up the Astros rotation. He may simply have been admitting the reality of having few cards to play outside of prospect Drew Gilbert. Unlike the Rangers, who have one of baseball’s deepest minor league systems, the Astros have one of the five worst.
Verlander, who has a 1.49 ERA over his last seven starts for the Mets, would be the logical target for Houston. But if the Mets do trade him, the Los Angeles Dodgers, with deeper pockets and better prospects, are better positioned to land the deal. Verlander has a full no-trade clause, which means he can pick his next team. While he clearly enjoyed his time with the Astros, he and his family also own a home in Los Angeles.
Money could also be an issue. Verlander has an excellent relationship with Astros owner Jim Crane, but last off-season when the New York Mets offered $86.7 million over two seasons and a $35 million 2025 vesting option, Crane told the Houston Chronicle the negotiations “got to a number we couldn’t match.”
Does Scherzer joining the Rangers change the franchise’s postseason outlook? Trade deadline deals are about more than the actual players—inside the Rangers clubhouse, players will likely interpret the front office’s all-in maneuvers as a signal that management believes in the group’s chances to compete for a World Series title and that Young and his staff are working to give the team every chance to succeed.
This may be the best way to understand the potential impact of the Rangers’ deal for Scherzer. The right-hander upgrades a thin rotation, but his arrival is also symbolic of a new, free-spending era in Arlington. The $15 million remaining on Scherzer’s 2023 salary will be added to what was already baseball’s fourth-highest payroll of $246 million. In their 51 years of existence, the Rangers have never come close to the spending levels of the New York Yankees, Los Angeles Dodgers, and Boston Red Sox. No matter how the remainder of the season plays out, Rangers fans will know Davis and Young are willing to open their pocketbook to build a championship-caliber roster.
Scherzer has pitched in nine separate postseasons with four different franchises. In 27 total playoff appearances, he has a 3.58 ERA, including three World Series starts and seven League Championship Series starts for the Detroit Tigers and Washington Nationals. Even in a season when the 39-year-old’s performance has declined, he’s still one of baseball’s ten or fifteen best pitchers.
Scherzer, known for his vocal leadership, should be a nice addition to a clubhouse in which some of the best players, especially Seager, prefer to let their play do the talking. Not Scherzer. He will talk and talk. He will huff and puff around the mound, at times seeming as if he’s daring opposing batters to try and hit his stuff. And when he’s pitching well, his new Rangers teammates will feed off this energy.
From the moment the Astros moved to the American League in 2013, some of us have dreamed of Texas’s two MLB franchises facing off in a playoff series. The Rangers have done their part to make it possible. Now it’s on the Astros, who trail the Rangers by one game in the AL West standings, to hold up their end of the deal.