The MLBPA issued a Press release today, announcing four new entrants to free agency. Three of them have already been reported on, as Jordan Lyles, Tommy Pham and Mychal Givens all have recently had options turned down by their respective clubs. The fourth was Justin Verlander, indicating that he has pulled out of his deal with the Astros.
Verlander, who turns 40 in April, will now be one of the most interesting free agents in recent memory. He has a successful track record that stretches back almost two decades now, with his MLB debut in 2005. Tommy John’s surgery ended his 2020 after just one outing and then prevented him from pitching at all in 2021 Despite two effectively lost seasons, the Astros still made him a qualifying offer a year ago, but they quickly agreed to a new contract. It was a two-year, $50 million deal, split into $25 million per season, which allowed Verlander to retire after 2022 as long as he pitched 130 innings per year.
Despite Verlander’s age and long layoff, he showed few signs of slowing down. He largely remained healthy, making a trip to the injured list due to a calf injury that only cost him about two weeks. He was able to make 28 starts, logging 175 innings and posting an incredible 1.75 ERA, easily his career best. He probably wasn’t as dominant as it looks from this ERA, since his 27.8% strikeout rate was a few ticks below what it was pre-SDR. But he still held his walks at 4.4% and allowed just 12 homers on the year, a personal low over a full season. He’s the AL Cy Young’s favorite heading into awards season and will now be among the most sought-after free agent pitchers, alongside Jacob of Grom and Carlos Rodon.
Based on his excellent season, stepping down seemed like a pretty straightforward choice for Verlander. If he got a $50 million guarantee after two straight lost years, why settle for $25 million after a great year? Given that he is now 40, he will not be able to secure a long-term contract, but he has said in the past that he hopes to pitch until he is 45. Just about any team in the league would love to have Verlander on their team. for a year, and many are surely ready to go as long as two years.
Perhaps the closest thing to a recent comparison is the agreement between Max Scherzer and the Mets. It’s not a perfect line-up, as Scherzer was 37 at the time, a few years younger than the future 40-year-old Verlander. But like Verlander, he managed to pitch at an ace level in an age when pitchers usually find themselves battling the passing of time and all of its sickening crimes. He and the Mets agreed to a short-term deal with a high average annual value, amounting to three years and $130 million. That equates to an AAV of $43,333, with Scherzer also getting an opt-out after 2023. Verlander’s situation isn’t exactly analogous, but he’ll likely offer somewhat similar deals.
Of course, not every team will be willing to pay that kind of money, but short-term, high-AVA deals can sometimes bring unlikely suitors to the table. One year ago, Carlos Correa was looking to top $300 million on a roughly ten-year deal. When that didn’t materialize, he turned to a shorter contract with a higher annual salary. The twins, who were probably never going to contemplate the long pact Correa sought, suddenly rushed into the fray and demanded Correa put pen to paper, though they also had to give him several takedowns. Last year, the Yankees, Red Sox and Blue Jays reportedly offered Verlander solid offers before he agreed to return to Houston. They and many other teams will surely be considering the same this winter.
The Astros will no doubt be looking to re-sign Verlander once again, hot on the heels of their second World Series title. However, they are one of the few teams that arguably don’t strictly need him, although any team would of course be improved by his presence. Even without Verlander, the rotation is still healthy, because Framber Valdez, Lance McCullers Jr., Christian Javier, Luis Garcia, Jose Urquidy and hunter brown are all still present. Still, it wouldn’t be a shock to see Verlander and the team re-entering a new contract and the club then using their high rotation to level up elsewhere. It was recently reported that they had a deadline deal to send Urquidy to the Cubs for Willson Contreras. Although owner Jim Crane apparently rescinded that deal, it shows the club is at least aware they have plenty of starting pitchers and are willing to consider negotiating it.
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