Scherzer, D-backs unsure of next step
2006 first-round pick may re-enter MLB Draft if deadline passes
FORT WORTH -- The Fort Worth Cats are hoping for a big crowd Saturday when they open their Independent American Association season with a doubleheader against the Shreveport Sports.
They'll certainly have one in the scouts' section. Twenty scouts were in the stands for a Cats exhibition game last week, and close to 40 are expected for this Saturday's nightcap of the doubleheader.
The big draw? Former University of Missouri right-hander Max Scherzer, the reigning Big 12 Pitcher of the Year and the only unsigned first-round pick from last June's First-Year Player Draft.
Scherzer was chosen 11th overall last year by Arizona, but is a Scott Boras client, who has not come to terms with the D-backs. The team holds exclusive negotiating rights until May 31. If no deal is signed by then, Scherzer, 22, is eligible to re-enter the 2007 Draft, scheduled for June 7-8.
"I'm not going to comment on the negotiations with Arizona, or what the future is going to come out to be," Scherzer said after a recent workout with the Cats. "I really don't know what's going to happen."
Nor does D-backs general manager Josh Byrnes, who succinctly summed up his club's position by saying, "We will continue to scout him and stay in contact with his representative."
Scherzer's path seems familiar because it was the same one traveled last year by another Boras pitcher. Former University of Tennessee right-hander Luke Hochevar held out for a year after being drafted 40th overall by the Dodgers in 2005. At his agent's urging, Hochevar joined the Cats and made four professional starts before last June's draft.
Hochevar showed enough that Kansas City took him with last year's first overall pick. And after rejecting the Dodgers' best offer of a $2.98 million signing bonus, he wound up getting a four-year Major League contract from the Royals reportedly worth $5.3 million, including a $3.5 million signing bonus. Hochevar is now at Double-A Wichita, where he is 2-4 with a 4.86 ERA after seven starts.
Scherzer went 7-3 with a 2.25 ERA last year for Missouri, after posting a 1.86 ERA and school-record 131 strikeouts as a sophomore. It is uncertain how high he might go if he returns to the draft pool, but this year's draft is considered thin on collegiate pitching talent. Scherzer said he has improved while working on his own the past nine months.
"I've added a two-seam fastball that I can throw in the games now," Scherzer said. "I had it in college, but I never felt comfortable with it and couldn't throw it for strikes. I have a lot more confidence in it now. Also, the balls are different and have lower seams than in college, which makes the ball easier to move. The Minor League balls have really sharpened up my slider.
"And, just in the last month or so, I changed my changeup grip to more of a straight change, so it comes out with more of a four-seam spin. Those are some of the things I've added. Even though I didn't have a contract, I got better."
Scherzer kept in shape and tinkered with his repertoire while working out with his former Missouri teammates. But when the opportunity came up last month to join the Cats, the urge to resume competitive pitching and a strong endorsement from Hochevar was all Scherzer needed.
"Once we determined we were going independent, [Boras] recommended coming here to Fort Worth," Scherzer said. "I'd only heard good things and then I talked to Luke about it. He seemed to be real upbeat and said he loved it, that it was a great experience. Everybody sold me on it, so that's why I signed up.
"I was just looking forward to getting out here to start competing again. Now it's a game scenario, where you have umpires and fielders and you're facing a wood bat. You just come out here and compete."
Scherzer knows many scouts will be scrutinizing his every appearance, but in his May 4 exhibition he showed an improved fastball that peaked at 98 mph and was consistently around 94-95 mph. His command was solid as he pitched 3 1/3 scoreless innings, allowing one hit while striking out six.
"I can't do anything more for the scouts," he said. "I can't be more than I am. When I go out there, it's all about winning and competing, and they'll make their evaluations from that. I can just go out there and play, that's all I'm really worried about right now."
Scherzer said that while he's been disappointed by the impasse, he remains open to signing with Arizona if an acceptable offer comes before the deadline. But he said he's past jumping every time his phone rings.
"For a little bit, yeah, I was getting frustrated," Scherzer said. "Because I wanted to control it. I wanted to get out there, I wanted to sign. But, finally, I just said, 'You know what? It's out of my control.'
"I'm just looking forward to getting back out here with umpires and records and stats and all that good stuff. It's baseball, just being out here and competing."
The willing beneficiaries of the situation are the Cats, who once again get to employ first-round talent to jump-start their season, if only for a short time.
"We had Luke Hochevar last year, and it's the same kind of situation," Fort Worth manager Stan Hough said. "Max is going to be here a short time, we're assuming. But he's come in here and fit like a glove, just one of the guys. That's how it was with Luke last year, too.
"Not many guys throw 97, 98 mph. Arizona had a high opinion on him, and I would assume those negotiations are still ongoing and there would be a real possibility he could sign with them before this draft happens. That's something we have to consider for our own team, because he might be exiting fast before we get to his spot in the rotation. We've already anticipated all the scenarios. We'd like to have him for four or five starts. But if not, we wish him the best of luck in his career."
Cats pitching coach Stan Hilton previously worked at Class A Clinton in the Texas Rangers' organization. He said Scherzer compares favorably with top prospects he tutored such as the White Sox John Danks and the Rangers' Edinson Volquez and Thomas Diamond.
"He's way ahead of the game because of the arm he's got," Hilton said. "He has not hurt himself [with the holdout], as far as I can tell. I think he's done a great job of finding a routine, maintaining a program, tweaking some things and improving on them. It's a credit to him that he's been able to really stay mentally strong.
"Now, he sees light at the end of the tunnel. He sees that he's going to be getting somewhere. I think he's at the point now where he's going to really start taking off."
Boras and the D-backs have stared each other to the brink before. His client, shortstop Stephen Drew, the brother of Boston outfielder J.D. Drew, fell to Arizona as the 15th overall pick in 2004. Drew held out, and eventually signed with the Camden Riversharks of the Independent Atlantic League. He played 19 games there before the sides agreed on a contract on May 31, 2005 -- a mere 15 minutes before he was to re-enter the draft pool.
That memory was still fresh on draft day last year, but D-backs scouting director Mike Rizzo said then he wasn't worried about another stalemate with Scherzer.
"Like we always do, we tried to take the best player on the board without regard to who his representative is," Rizzo said. "This is a guy we wanted to get in the system. He was the guy that fit for us at No. 11, and that's why we took him."
Scherzer was originally drafted out of high school by the St. Louis Cardinals (43rd round, 2003), but decided to attend Missouri instead.
Whatever the outcome of this year's lengthy negotiations, they are probably the last of their kind. Under terms of the new Basic Agreement between Major League players and owners, a draftee not signed by Aug. 15 will return to the draft pool.
Ken Daley is a contributor to MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.