While James Shields is a very good starter who can handle pitching at the top of a rotation, he’s not quite the prize that fellow free-agent right-hander Max Scherzer is. That’s why for all the intrigue, guesswork and speculation over where Shields might wind up, everything in that realm is much more compelling when it comes to Scherzer.

As Richard Justice of MLB.com points out: “In the last three seasons, Scherzer’s 55 victories are the most in baseball. He’s first in strikeouts, too, and 11th in innings [in that span]. By almost any definition, he’s a true No. 1 starter. The Tigers [were] 65-23 when Scherzer gets the ball and 205-192 with anyone else on the mound.”

Tack on the fact that the 30-year-old Scherzer, who took home the 2013 American League Cy Young Award, is represented by agent Scott Boras, and, well, this has all the makings of a free-agent frenzy.

And yet there hasn’t exactly been a Scherzer sweepstakes set up, as Jon Heyman of CBS Sports writes:

The best player on the MLB free-agent market not only doesn’t have a team yet, he doesn’t even have a rumor.

No team has declared or even admitted serious involvement, but everyone believes star right-hander Max Scherzer…will easily surpass the six-year, $144 million deal he turned down last spring.

And most think it won’t be by only a little, either.

So what are the key factors that will determine where Scherzer ultimately signs?


The Massive Money

Scherzer’s camp has made it known that he is seeking a contract worth $200 million, if not more, according to Jon Morosi of Fox Sports.

That’s, uh, a lot of scratch. Even if the ultimate price tag is shy of that figure, Scherzer is going to get at least the $155 million that Jon Lester landed from the Chicago Cubs during the winter meetings in mid-December.

In other words, only teams with the financial fortitude need apply.


The Big-Market Teams

Speaking of those clubs possessing proper payrolls…

For this drawn-out speculation and eventual negotiation tactic to work out, Boras needs a market to develop around Scherzer in order to grab some leverage in any talks by playing interested teams against each other.

Which teams might that include?

The New York Yankees, who have been active this offseason without having gone after any top-tier, big-money players and instead playing it safe by re-signing third baseman Chase Headley, inking lefty reliever Andrew Miller and trading for shortstop Didi Gregorius.

Various reports have popped up that indicate the Yankees could jump into the Scherzer mix at some point toward the end, including one from Ken Davidoff of the New York Post. But so far, general manager Brian Cashman has held steady in his oft-repeated winter plans not to spend big, according to Mark Feinsand and Bill Madden of the New York Daily News.

Maybe, however, the loss of right-hander Hiroki Kuroda, the most durable and consistent member of an intriguing but injury-prone rotation, will force the Yankees’ hand on Scherzer. (On Monday, the news broke that Kuroda would return to Japan, per MLB.com’s Bryan Hoch.)

“The Yankees need [Scherzer],” Justice wrote. “He might be the difference between making the playoffs and missing out for a third straight year. As long as Scherzer is still on the market, the Yanks have to be considered a contender.”

The other teams that have the funds and could make sense as a fit? The Giants, Angels and Red Sox each have a need at the top of their rotations and the money to make a very bold move.

And while the Nationals, Dodgers, Cardinals and Tigers, with whom Scherzer spent the past five seasons, seem to have enough arms at the moment, they simply might get greedy and stock up on as much talent as possible in their respective quests to get to the World Series.

Then again, Tigers GM Dave Dombrowski said in mid-December, “I guess anything can happen, but we’re not in active pursuit of that situation at this time,” via Anthony Fenech of the Detroit Free Press.

Still, that doesn’t mean owner Mike Ilitch, who has a history of signing Boras clients and has been chasing a World Series title for the past handful of seasons now, won’t find a way to pony up to keep Scherzer around.


Timing and Desperation

If Shields signs first, Scherzer’s status on the open market would certainly be affected. 

On one hand, if Shields comes off the board before Scherzer does, then that makes Scherzer the very last prize among free agents. That’s not a bad position to be in, especially when a team or three is likely to be desperate after missing out on Shields.

Depending on how long Boras and Scherzer let this play out, desperation also could set in if a club gets bad news about one of its pitchers between now and the start of spring training in mid-February. Should anything happen to a key arm on a contending team, the circumstances would change immediately.


The Alleged Arms Race

One of the biggest storylines of this busy offseason has been how many great pitchers are available between free agency and trades.

Well, aside from Scherzer and Shields, the free-agent well has just about dried up, what with the likes of Ryan Vogelsong, Aaron Harang and Roberto Hernandez looking like the next-best arms on the open market. Remember: Japanese star Kenta Maeda isn’t going to be posted, news that broke before Kuroda’s decision. 

On the trade front, however, there are still a handful of big names that have been mentioned, including Cole Hamels, Johnny Cueto, Jordan Zimmermann and Zack Greinke, the latter two of which could be replaced by Scherzer were the Washington Nationals or Los Angeles Dodgers actually to make such a move.

It could very well be, though, that those very top arms actually won’t change teams. So far, the best pitchers to be traded are more of the No. 2- or No. 3-starter caliber like Jeff Samardzija, Mat Latos, Rick Porcello, Shelby Miller and Wade Miley.

That makes Scherzer look more attractive, especially since he costs only money as opposed to money and talent, which would be the price for, say, Hamels or Cueto.


Contenders over Pretenders

Dollars appear to be driving Scherzer’s search for a team, as is often the case when Boras is involved.

That said, Scherzer undoubtedly wants to win after reaching the playoffs the past four years, but ultimately falling short of the World Series each time. 

Therefore, an in-his-prime ace like Scherzer is not going to sign with the Houston Astros, Tampa Bay Rays, Colorado Rockies or any other team that isn’t already a contender, or at least on the very precipice of being one.

As much as money matters, winning while at the top of your game, like Scherzer is right now, also presents a powerful pull.


Statistics are accurate through the 2014 season and courtesy of MLB.com, Baseball-Reference and FanGraphs unless otherwise noted.

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