Justin Verlander ran through the Guardians lineup tonight, throwing six scoreless innings. It was another dominating performance in a season full of them for AL Award contender Cy Young, and today’s debut also marked a notable contract development. Verlander reached 130 innings during the season, which means he has officially acquired a $25 million player option for the 2023 campaign.
Verlander tends to forego this option, as he is able to easily exceed an average annual value of $25 million as a free agent. The nine-time All-Star received an identical salary this year on the heels of a season he didn’t pitch while recovering from Tommy John surgery in 2020. one of the best seasons of a Hall of Fame career, Verlander is heading for a massive raise. That’s especially true since he received and rejected a qualifying offer last winter, which means the Astros can’t offer another QO next offseason. So a signing club won’t have to give up a draft pick or international signing bonus space this time around. Barring injury or a completely unexpected meltdown in the past two months, he’ll break a $25 million guarantee on the free agent market.
After tonight’s start, Verlander now holds a major league-best 1.73 ERA. His 25.5% strikeout rate isn’t at the elite level of 35.1% he posted between 2018 and 2020, but he’s still four points above the MLB average for beginners. With the best run prevention in the league, Verlander’s drop in strikeouts probably won’t have too big of an effect on his open market value. That’s especially true since his average fastball speed of 95 MPH remained intact after elbow surgery, and he’s continued to spin both his fastball and breaking pitches at a top-notch level. . Verlander also has some of the best commands in the sport, and the 2011 AL MVP has proven himself capable of thriving on the biggest stage. He has a career 3.40 ERA in 187 2/3 playoff innings, and he’ll have the opportunity to build on that resume with Houston in October.
Verlander’s stellar record makes for one of the most compelling free agent cases of the upcoming offseason. He has clearly re-established himself as one of the best pitchers in the sport, the kind of ace clubs who would be happy to pitch in the opener of a playoff series. A new deal will start with his campaign at 40, however, setting him up for a short-term contract with a massive annual salary.
The obvious point of comparison is the record contract signed by his former teammate Max Scherzer last winter. The three-time Cy Young winner has signed a three-year, $130 million deal with the Mets. This erased the previous record annual salary, with Scherzer’s annual payout of $43.333 million exceeding the annual salary of any previous contract by more than $7 million. Scherzer was coming off a 179 1/3 inning, 2.46 ERA campaign in which he knocked out 34.1 percent of opponents between the Nationals and Dodgers. That best swing-and-miss might tip the balance in Scherzer’s favor, but Verlander and his reps at ISE Baseball look likely to try to top that AAV record — especially if he holds an ERA below 2.00 all the year. Even if he doesn’t quite reach Scherzer’s heights, beating the $36 million annual salary that ranks second all-time seems achievable for Verlander.
It will also be interesting to see how long the contract Verlander could receive. Scherzer’s deal started with his campaign at 37 and takes him to 39, Verlander’s current age. With Verlander still at the top of his game, a multi-year pact seems likely. It remains to be seen if any team would go up to three years and sign him until the age of 42.
The next starting pitcher market includes a few high-end arms, though most have injury or age issues. With Joe Musgrove agreeing to a five-year extension to stay in his hometown of San Diego, players like Jacob of Grom, Carlos Rodon and Verlander seem to be the best pitchers in the market (assuming the three exclusion clauses trigger in their contracts).
Nathan Eovaldi and Chris Bassit are above average beginners, but each is already in their mid-thirties. Noah Syndergaard looked like a solid arm mid-rotation, but doesn’t throw as hard or miss as many bats as he did in his prime with the Mets. Sean Manee has a disappointing 4.24 ERA on the year, though he’s generally a solid mid-rotation guy. Mike Clevinger will enter his season aged 32 and missed all of last year’s rehabilitation after Tommy John surgery. Zach Eflin is one of the youngest arms available and generally strong when healthy, but has struggled with recurring knee injuries during his career which have cropped up again this season. Clayton Kershaw apparently limited its market last winter with geographic restrictions. It’s a class that’s bound to lack star power, but there’s also quite a bit of uncertainty with most of the veteran casters out there.
Image courtesy of USA Today Sports.