Justin Verlander is a free agent without much precedent. A favorite to claim his third career Cy Young award this evening, he’s back on the open market after bypassing a $25MM player option with the Astros.
Verlander’s a fascinating case for teams. He turns 40 years old in February, which’ll certainly cap the length of his next deal. Yet he’s still among the top handful of pitchers in the sport, which sets him up for one of the largest per-year salaries in MLB history. Astros owner Jim Crane — who has taken a very hands-on role in the Houston front office and played a key role in bringing Verlander back last winter — told Brian McTaggart of MLB.com that Verlander has looked to last winter’s biggest free agent pitching contract as precedent. His former teammate Max Scherzer inked a three-year, $130MM guarantee with the Mets — a deal that also allowed him to opt out after the 2023 season.
“I know him well, so we’ve been pretty candid,” Crane told McTaggart. “He’s looking at the comp, which I think there’s only one or two. … J.V.’s probably got a few years left, and he wants to make the most of it. I think he’s going to test the market on that.”
The Scherzer deal indeed seems the closest comparison to Verlander, although their situations aren’t perfectly analogous. While both are all-time great pitchers still pitching near the top of their games deeper into their careers, a three-year bet on Scherzer was probably easier for a team to stomach than that same term for Verlander. Scherzer signed in advance of his age-37 season, while the latter will be three years older at the start of his next contract. Verlander’s two years removed from a Tommy John procedure that cost him almost all of the 2020-21 campaigns, but he’s bounced back to pitch at pre-surgery levels this year. Scherzer had avoided any injury of that magnitude in the past decade, topping 170 innings in every full season since 2008 before this year.
While that seems to tip things in Scherzer’s favor, their pure performance track records are mostly without complaint. Verlander had a 1.75 ERA across 175 innings this past season; Scherzer posted a 2.46 mark in 2021. The latter missed more bats, striking out 34.1% of opponents against Verlander’s 27.8% mark. Fanning just under 28% of opponents is still excellent for a starting pitcher, though, and Verlander maintained top-tier control while sitting in the mid-90s with his fastball.
To no one’s surprise, Crane suggested the Astros hope to bring Verlander back. However, there appears to be a notable gap between the two sides on contract terms right now. While Crane didn’t specify the lengths the Astros are willing to go to retain the nine-time All-Star, Chandler Rome of the Houston Chronicle reports Crane has thus far been reluctant to go past a two-year guarantee in the $60MM – $70MM range. That’s certainly not to say the Houston owner couldn’t later raise the offer, but Rome characterizes that as a rough line the team has set at present and suggests the Astros are very unlikely to offer a third guaranteed year.
Whether another team would be willing to go three years is one of the most interesting storylines of the offseason, and MLBTR forecasts Verlander for a three-year, $120MM guarantee. In any event, it doesn’t seem as if the Astros and Verlander are going to come to any agreement within the first few days of the offseason. The right-hander has spoken a number of times about his respect for Crane and affinity for the organization generally, but the owner’s comments don’t suggest the future Hall of Famer is looking to take a notable discount to stick around for a fifth full season with the defending World Series champs.
One could argue the Astros are better off letting Verlander walk and reallocating their spending capacity. They’re sure to face competition from a number of big-market, win-now teams. Clubs like the Yankees, Dodgers, Mets and Phillies figure to check in; Andy Martino of SNY wrote yesterday the Mets have discussed internally the possibility of a Verlander pursuit, presumably as an alternative if Jacob deGrom departs in free agency.
Houston is one of the sport’s biggest spenders themselves, and they don’t figure to be facing acute budgetary limitations coming off a championship. Yet Rome points out the Astros under Crane have tended to shy away from long-term free agent commitments. They also have questions at first base, at one of left field or designated hitter (depending on the team’s plans for Yordan Alvarez) and, to a lesser extent, in the bullpen.
Roster Resource projects their 2023 commitments just under $164MM with a luxury tax number around $179MM. Topping this year’s approximate $174MM Opening Day payroll feels like a given, and they’re around $54MM away from the $233MM base luxury tax threshold. Houston could certainly make a Verlander deal work, but an annual salary approaching or topping the $43.333MM Scherzer secured would push them fairly close to CBT territory without addressing anywhere else on the roster. Even if Verlander departs, a rotation of Framber Valdez, Cristian Javier, Lance McCullers Jr., Luis Garcia, José Urquidy and top prospect Hunter Brown (plus any external additions) would be among the best in the sport.
As far those other needs go, Crane tells McTaggart he’s interested in bringing back Yuli Gurriel at first base. He was less committal on Michael Brantley, whom Crane said could need to wait until March until there’s clarity on his recovery from this summer’s right shoulder surgery. Crane also pointed to a desire to add a left-handed bullpen arm, an obvious question after the team bought out Will Smith at the start of the offseason. He didn’t speak on free agent catcher/DH Willson Contreras, to whom the club has previously been linked, but Rome reports that Houston indeed has “strong interest” in the former Cubs backstop.
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