Free agent right-hander Drew VerHagen is returning to the Nippon-Ham Fighters of Japan’s Nippon Professional Baseball, reports Robert Murray of FanSided. The Vayner Sports client is signing a two-year pact, the second season of which is a player option. He can earn close to $8MM in total over those two years, but the 33-year-old righty’s player option will ensure him an opportunity to again test MLB free agency next winter if he pitches well in his return to Japan.
It’ll be VerHagen’s second stint in Japan and his second with the Fighters. The right-hander spent the 2020-21 season with the Fighters as well, parlaying his 3.51 ERA in 207 2/3 innings there into a two-year, $5.5MM deal with the Cardinals in the 2021-22 offseason. (Anecdotally, VerHagen was the first player to sign a Major League contract after MLB’s 99-day lockout lifted.)
VerHagen’s first season in St. Louis didn’t go well, as injuries limited him to 19 appearances and 21 2/3 innings of 6.65 ERA ball. He underwent season-ending hip surgery midway through that 2022 campaign. The former Tigers righty rebounded nicely in 2023, however, piling up 61 innings out of Oli Marmol’s bullpen while notching a solid 3.98 ERA. VerHagen fanned 22.4% of his opponents against a 9.7% walk rate and kept the ball on the ground at a 42.2% clip.
VerHagen has more than five years of MLB service accrued over parts of eight seasons, but last year’s showing with the Cardinals was the best of his career. His 61 innings were a career-high, as were his 14 holds, and his 3.98 ERA was the lowest of his career outside of a 2.05 mark in 26 innings back with the 2015 Tigers.
It’s not especially common to see a player debut in the Majors, head overseas to NPB or the KBO, find success, come back to MLB, and then return to NPB or the KBO. VerHagen could take an even more atypical arc if he’s indeed able to once again leverage a strong season in Japan into another MLB offer.
Players generally don’t bounce back and forth from continent to continent in this manner, but VerHagen has primarily been a swingman and middle reliever in MLB, and that role tends to come with limited earning power. His openness to a globetrotting lifestyle could end up earning him more than $15MM when factoring in his previous two seasons with the Fighters, his two years in St. Louis, and this pending contract to return to Japan. It may not be a common course to chart, but it’s one that’s been quite lucrative for the righty.
VerHagen was a starter during his previous NPB stint, and if the Fighters plug him back into their rotation, he could conceivably use year one of this two-year pact to showcase himself as a rotation option for teams next winter. And, even if his performance dips or he incurs another injury and he chooses not to opt out, he’ll have the safety net of another strong seven-figure salary in year two of the deal.