The Washington Nationals have stepped up their already fearsome NL East game with their signing of top free agent starter Max Scherzer to a seven-year, $210 million contract yesterday. The Nationals have bolstered what was already a prime strength on their roster, their deep rotation, and made it even stronger with the addition of an ace-level caliber of player in Scherzer.
One might think that this puts pressure of the Miami Marlins, who are positioned as a prime competitor for the NL East division crown, to try and match the Nationals in their efforts. The Marlins have been rumored to be still interested in James Shields, the other ace-level pitcher on the market. If the price begins to fall on Shields, the Marlins may still remain in the periphery of the market and would consider an offer.
On the outside, this appears to be a logical move for the Fish to combat the improvement of a direct NL East competitor. However, the signing of Scherzer to the Nationals itself should not push Miami to make a move on Shields. It is true that Shields is probably the only avenue towards improvement for the roster at this point, but the Marlins cannot break the budget unwisely to try and gain an edge on a competitor who is still way ahead of the team.
If you look at the FanGraphs projected standings based on Steamer projections, the Nationals stand at an estimated 91 wins, which is the best in baseball at this point, tied with the Los Angeles Dodgers. The Marlins stand in the middle of the pack at 81 wins. Even if you were generous enough to bump up some of the team's projections, 84 wins would be a reach for a median guess. That means that the Marlins are already an expected seven to ten wins behind the Nationals in the division "race," and that may even be before Scherzer's addition. Of course, Scherzer likely adds something between two to three wins over the Nationals' final starter, Tanner Roark, he of the impressive 2014 season.
The Marlins have a noted gap in the fifth starter spot if Dan Haren chooses to retire, even though he plans to report to Spring Training. The team is likely looking at mediocre options like Brad Hand or David Phelps at the fifth starter spot at the start of the year if they cannot sign a player like Shields. But overall, Shields is a worse pitcher than Scherzer and would probably provide less of an advantage over the Marlins' starters. Shields may be worth around two to 2.5 wins better than half a season of Phelps or Hand and half a year of Tom Koehler once Jose Fernandez returns from Tommy John surgery.
Likely, this means that signing Shields keeps Miami even with the Nationals, but still well behind them. Because the Fish are so far back of the Nationals, their best avenue would be to improve their chances to win the Wild Card. Signings Shields does that, but the Fish shouldn't feel compelled to do that to keep up with Joneses in the NL East. Yes, the Marlins are still competing with Washington, but it is very likely that the end of the season will hold a different tale. Scherzer's signing should not affect the Marlins' decision-making process.
Is signing Shields still a good idea? Again, the price has to be right, and the Marlins would likely only be able to budget it if they traded Dan Haren without the money that the Dodgers sent over in the Dee Gordon deal. It would improve the team, but at significant monetary cost in the future. But the impetus should not be because of the Scherzer signing, which is really happening in a stratosphere above the Fish's current heads.