The MLBPA issued a press release today, announcing four new entrants to free agency. Three of them were already reported upon, as Jordan Lyles, Tommy Pham and Mychal Givens all had options turned down by their respective clubs recently. The fourth was Justin Verlander, indicating he has opted 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 track record of success that goes back almost two decades now, with his MLB debut coming back in 2005. Tommy John surgery ended his 2020 after just a single outing and then prevented him from pitching at all in 2021. Despite two effectively lost seasons, the Astros still issued him a qualifying offer a year ago, but then they quickly agreed to a new contract. It was a two-year, $50MM deal, split into $25MM per season, that allowed Verlander to opt out after 2022 as long as he pitched 130 innings on the year.
Despite Verlander’s age and long layoff, he showed little sign of slowing down. He largely stayed healthy, making one trip to the injured list due to a calf injury which 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 quite as dominant as it might seem from that ERA, since his 27.8% strikeout rate was a few ticks below where it had been prior to the TJS. But he still kept his walks down to 4.4% and only allowed 12 home runs on the year, a personal low over a full season. He’s the favorite for the AL Cy Young as awards season approaches and will now be among the most sought after free agent pitchers, alongside Jacob deGrom and Carlos Rodón.
Based on his excellent season, opting out seemed to be a fairly straightforward choice for Verlander. If he got a $50MM guarantee after two straight lost years, why settle for $25MM on the heels of an excellent year? Given that he’s now 40, he won’t be able to secure a long-term deal, but he’s said in the past that he hopes to pitch until he’s 45. Just about any team in the league would love to have Verlander on their team for one year, with many surely willing to go to two years.
Perhaps the closest thing to a recent comparison is the deal between Max Scherzer and the Mets. It’s not a perfect comp, since Scherzer was 37 at the time, a few years younger than the soon-to-be-40 Verlander. But like Verlander, he was managing to pitch at an ace-like level into an age when pitchers usually find themselves fighting 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, coming in at three years and $130MM. That works out to an AAV of $43.333, with Scherzer also securing an opt out after 2023. Verlander’s situation isn’t perfectly analogous but he will likely be fielding offers that are somewhat similar.
Of course, not all teams will be willing to pay that kind of money, but short-term, high-AAV deals can sometimes bring unlikely suitors to the table. One year ago, Carlos Correa was looking to top $300MM on a contract around ten years in length. When it didn’t materialize, he pivoted towards a shorter deal with a higher annual salary. The Twins, who likely were never going to consider the lengthy pact Correa sought, suddenly jumped into the fray and got Correa to put pen to paper, though they also had to give him multiple opt-out opportunities. Last year, the Yankees, Red Sox and Blue Jays reportedly offered Verlander strong deals before he agreed to return to Houston. They and many other teams will surely consider the same this winter.
The Astros will undoubtedly look to re-sign Verlander yet again, on the heels of their second World Series title. However, they are one of the few teams that arguably don’t strictly need him, though any team would of course be improved by his presence. Even without Verlander, the rotation is still in healthy shape, as Framber Valdez, Lance McCullers Jr., Cristian Javier, Luis Garcia, José Urquidy and Hunter Brown are all still present. Still, it wouldn’t be a shock to see Verlander and the team re-up on a new deal and the club then using their strong rotation to upgrade elsewhere. It was recently reported that they had a deal lined up at the deadline to send Urquidy to the Cubs for Willson Contreras. Although owner Jim Crane reportedly nixed that deal, it shows that the club is at least aware that it has lots of starting pitching and is willing to consider trading from it.