Justin Verlander’s potential team suits as a free agent
With the 2022 season behind us and the Hot Stove set to burn, we take a close look at some of the hottest players eligible for free agency.
Last name: Justin Verlander
Position: Right-handed pitcher
Crew: Houston Astros
Age (as of opening day 2023): 40
2022 statistics: 18-4, 1.75 ERA, 175 IP, 185K, 0.829 WHIP, 220 ERA+
A year ago, Justin Verlander hit the open market with a huge question mark hovering over his free agency: After making just one start since the start of 2020 and undergoing Tommy John surgery, what would the two-time American League Cy Young Award winner look like at 39?
Verlander signed a one-year, $25 million contract with the Astros, a deal that included a $25 million player option for 2023 if he pitched at least 130 innings. The right-hander crossed that mark, but his incredible season led him to decline the option, giving him the opportunity to test the market again.
In terms of talent, Verlander is arguably the best starting pitcher in the free agent market. But he will turn 40 in February, an age when most pitchers are considering decline and/or retirement. Then again, Verlander could be baseball’s answer to Tom Brady, who won an MVP award at age 40 and Super Bowl rings at 41 and 43.
What will Verlander’s contract look like? Which teams will be in the mix to add defending AL winner Cy Young? We’ll take a look.
Verlander has been a perfect match for the Astros since arriving in September 2017, helping Houston win a pair of World Series titles and another American League pennant. He’s 61-19 with a 2.26 ERA in 102 starts for the Astros, but after opting out of his $25 million contract for 2023, three-time AL winner Cy Young could opt out of the Houston market. The Astros have plenty of pitches, so it remains to be seen whether owner Jim Crane — who is very fond of Verlander — will pay the price to ensure he retires to Houston.
The Mets have their own ace in the free agent market in Jacob deGrom, who isn’t sure he’ll return to New York. If deGrom leaves, Verlander would replace two-time National League winner Cy Young in the short term, potentially pairing him with former Detroit teammate Max Scherzer. Of course, that would mean paying around $85 million a year for 38- and 40-year-old starters.
No team will be tied to more free-agent pitchers this offseason than Texas, which caused a stir last winter with the signings of Corey Seager and Marcus Semien for a total of $500 million. The Rangers are said to be in pursuit of a bona fide ace like Verlander, although Texas have also been tied to pitchers like deGrom, Kodai Senga and Carlos Rodón.
The Yankees made an offer for Verlander last offseason before he eventually joined the Astros. New York thinks it’s spending most of its time — and potentially its money — bringing Aaron Judge back to the Bronx, but if the AL MVP leaves town, the Yankees could switch to a high-priced ace like Verlander , pairing him with former Astros rotation mate Gerrit Cole.
The Dodgers have rotation issues to work out this offseason, as Walker Buehler is set to miss most (if not all) of 2023 after Tommy John surgery. Tyler Anderson has already left for the Angels, while Andrew Heaney is also a free agent. A short-term, high-AVA contract could be attractive to Los Angeles.
Toronto made a solid offer for Verlander last offseason, and while the Blue Jays saw the pitcher re-sign with the Astros, it won’t be a shock to see the Jays give him another run this winter. The Blue Jays won 92 games in 2022 with a super-heavy rotation that ranked eighth in the AL with a 3.98 ERA, so adding another front-row starter would help Toronto win its first AL East title since 2015.
It’s hard to argue with much of what we’ve seen from Verlander in 2022, when he led the AL in ERA, wins, winning percentage, WHIP, ERA+ and hits by nine innings. If there’s anything potential suitors should beware of, it’s that only one pitcher in the modern era has ever posted an ERA below 3.00 in his 40s (minimum 400 innings): Roger Clemens, who had a 2.99 ERA in 849 2/3 innings between ages 40 and 44.
It’s nearly impossible to find a good comparison for Verlander after his stellar season at 39, but contractually the three-year, $130 million deal Scherzer signed with the Mets last winter seems like a good place to start. . Scherzer had gone 49-22 with a 2.74 ERA in 102 starts (639 2/3 innings) of 2018-21 before signing this deal, while Verlander is 56-19 with a 2.33 ERA out of 97 departures since the start of 2018, which makes only one departure between 2020-21 due to injury). Scherzer was entering his season aged 37 when he signed his contract, while Verlander turns 40 in February, so it will be interesting to see if he can complete a three-year pact.