Mapping out Justin Verlander's Path to Being MLB's First $200 Million Arm

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Mapping out Justin Verlander's Path to Being MLB's First $200 Million Arm
Kelley L Cox-USA TODAY Sports

The $200 million fraternity in Major League Baseball houses only a select few players, none of whom make their living throwing the ball over the plate.

Detroit Tigers ace Justin Verlander is looking to change that, and you had better believe that he can.

Verlander told Jeff Passan of Yahoo! Sports in February that he wants to become baseball's first $200 million pitcher, saying "it would be nice to be compensated for what I feel like I've been: one of the best, if not the best, the last few years."

Verlander dispelled any notions of him being intent on hitting the open market after 2014 in a chat with Jason Beck of MLB.com, but he didn't reverse course on his initial comments. He was asked if he wanted to be a $200 million pitcher, and he gave an honest answer.

Verlander kept on beating the drum in an interview with CNN's Carol Costello this week.

"They got taken out of context a little bit," said Verlander of his initial remarks to Passan, "but I'm not going to take back what I said. Do you want to be the first $200-million pitcher? Yeah, absolutely."

The goal is clear enough. What matters now is how Verlander is going to get there, and that's a tricky path. It's going to have to go a little something like this.

 

Just Do Your Thing, Justin

What Verlander wants is to be paid like a man who's far and away the best pitcher in baseball. Given what he's done over the last two seasons, that's fair enough.

Verlander said in his talk with Passan that he feels he's separated himself from everyone else since the start of the 2011 season, and the numbers say that's undeniably true. Passan noted that Verlander leads MLB in leads baseball in innings, wins, strikeouts, ERA+ and opponent batting average over the last two seasons, and he ranks second to Clayton Kershaw in ERA and opponent OPS.

Verlander has been quite the WAR hero over the last two seasons as well. FanGraphs has his WAR since 2011 at a league-best 13.9. Baseball-Reference.com has it at 15.9, also a league best.

Since Verlander is baseball's best pitcher, and since free agency is just two years away, he has a fair amount of leverage to ask the Tigers for a $200 million deal. He'll have even more leverage as he gets closer and closer to free agency, but only so long as he's doing typical Verlander things on the mound. If he wants $200 million in the near future, he can't be a lesser pitcher in 2013.

If so, well, so be it. That's not too tall of a task.

Gregory Shamus/Getty Images
Verlander didn't win the Cy Young in 2012, but he was really just as good as he was in 2011.

Verlander pitched like the best pitcher in the world when he won the AL Cy Young and MVP in 2011 on the strength of a 24-5 season that saw him rack up 251 innings and a 2.40 ERA. Though he didn't win as many games or pitch as many innings in 2012, his performance barely declined.

Verlander's ERA rose only 24 points from 2.40 to 2.64, but his Fielding Independent Pitching (FIP) actually improved from 2.99 to 2.94.

FIP is a stat that judges pitchers in light of things they can control, namely strikeouts, walks, hit by pitches and homers. In 2012, Verlander's K/9 and BB/9 rose slightly from where they were in 2011, he hit just a couple more batters and allowed fewer home runs (see FanGraphs). In these departments, the 2011 version of Verlander underwent very few changes in 2012.

And so it must go in 2013. If Verlander keeps pitching like he did in 2011 and 2012, he'll once again stand out as baseball's preeminent ace, in which case the Tigers aren't going to have much leverage to talk down his asking price.

Verlander, however, needs to make sure it's not just him the Tigers are keeping an eye on.

 

Tell the Tigers to Keep an Eye on Zack Greinke and Felix Hernandez

Without Zack Greinke and Felix Hernandez, there wouldn't be any talk going on right now about Verlander possibly earning a $200 million contract.

Greinke raised the bar for elite right-handed pitchers when he signed a six-year, $147 million deal with the Los Angeles Dodgers as a free agent. That's $24.5 million per year, which is a lot of coin for a guy with a 3.77 career ERA and about 1,500 innings pitched in parts of nine seasons.

It's no surprise that Felix Hernandez—a guy with a 3.22 career ERA and over 1,600 innings pitched in parts of eight seasons—did better. He set the bar higher with his five-year, $135.5 million deal with the Seattle Mariners, which was added on top of the $39.5 million he was already owed in 2013 and 2014. In all, he's owed $25 million per year over the next seven seasons.

It's going to be easy for Verlander to show the Tigers that he's a better pitcher than Greinke by a country mile, in which case that $24.5 million annual average value will stand out as a number that must be beat by a significant margin in order for the Tigers to keep their ace. Greinke doesn't have much hope of being a better pitcher than Verlander. In fact, the only real advantage Greinke has is being a year younger.

The age factor is a much bigger hurdle in Verlander's quest to top King Felix's contract. Whereas Verlander just turned 30 in late February, Hernandez hasn't even turned 27 yet. 

Verlander still has the leverage he needs to demand a higher annual average value in his next contract than the $25 million annual average value in Hernandez's contract. The two of them are both elite pitchers, but Hernandez is just one of the many hurlers that Verlander has blown out of the water since 2011.

Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images
Hernandez signed a record contract just months after pitching a perfect game. He's living the good life.

But the age disparity between the two is a complication for Verlander because getting a $200 million depends on the length of his next contract. Whereas Hernandez's seven-year commitment is only going to last through his age-33 season, a seven-year partnership between Verlander and the Tigers would take him through his age-36 season. The Tigers may not be willing to go that far given the risk of injuries and age sapping Verlander's effectiveness.

But assuming Verlander isn't signing anything before this season begins, the reality is that it's going to take at least a six-year commitment on top of his current deal to get him to $200 million. A six-year, $180 million deal on top of the $20 million he's owed for 2014 would do the trick. If Verlander is looking for the extension itself to be $200 million, it would probably have to be for seven years. That would take him through his age-38 season.

It's going to take more than just skill to earn a commitment like that from the Tigers. Verlander must also prove to the Tigers beyond a shadow of a doubt that, though he may not be as young, he's more freakishly durable than Hernandez.

To this end, Verlander has a hope. The Mariners discovered an issue with Hernandez's elbow while they were in the process of wrapping up his extension, and one wonders if this issue was at the heart of King Felix's late-season struggles in 2012. He compiled an ERA over 6.00 in the month of September and failed to average six innings per start.

If Hernandez proves incapable of handling his usual workload in 2012 while Verlander is racking up innings like he always has, Verlander is going look like a more reliable workhorse at the age of 30 than Hernandez at the age of 27. In that case, the Tigers will be forced to ponder the possibility that Verlander truly is a Nolan Ryan-esque freak who's going to be pitching forever.

If they're not already pondering, of course. They should be given Verlander's track record. And the sooner the Tigers reach a conclusion, the better.

The last thing the Tigers want to do is drag their feet in regards to an extension for Verlander, as they could find themselves having to pay him a lot more than $200 million if they wait too long.

 

More Importantly, Tell the Tigers to Keep an Eye on Clayton Kershaw

Verlander isn't alone in his quest to become baseball's first $200 million pitcher. Clayton Kershaw is right there with him, and that's something the Tigers should be wary of.

There aren't many sure bets in baseball, but the Dodgers signing Kershaw to a contract worth over $200 million in the near future is as sure as they come. They have a $7 billion TV deal at their disposal, and Kershaw has grounds to ask the Dodgers for a literal boatload of cash.

Kershaw has immense talent, for one. As Passan noted, Kershaw has all pitchers beat in ERA and opponent OPS over the last two seasons, and he's also struck out more batters and pitched more innings than any other left-hander in baseball.

Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports
Oh, to be an ace lefty under the employment of the Dodgers...

Just as important, Kershaw has youth. He hasn't even turned 25 yet, making it not out of the question that the Dodgers could sign him to an extension as long as 10 years. Even if the Dodgers prefer to do something shorter than that, Dylan Hernandez of the Los Angeles Times noted in December that the buzz around baseball was that Kershaw's next deal could be for $30 million per year.

Over a 10-year contract, that's $300 million, which is absurd. Even over a seven-year contract, that's $210 million, which is still pretty good.

Regardless of the length or the final dollar amount, it's inevitable that Kershaw is going to sign a deal worth over $200 million. That reality should have the Tigers feeling urgent to get something done with Verlander, as the situation will be all the more complicated if they have to negotiate with Verlander after Kershaw has set the market for elite ace pitchers.

Because as good and as young as Kershaw is, Verlander still has the strongest claim to the honor of being baseball's best pitcher. That wouldn't necessarily give him grounds to ask for more years if he were to sign after Kershaw signs, but he would have grounds to ask for a higher average annual value.

For now, the good news for the Tigers is that nothing appears to be imminent between Kershaw and the Dodgers. Jon Heyman of CBSSports.com reported last week that the two sides hadn't yet reached "the serious stages" of contract talks, and Kershaw told Tracy Ringolsby of MLB.com this week that he doesn't want contract talks to drag into the regular season.

Bottom line: the Tigers need to set the market with Verlander before the Dodgers set the market with Kershaw. The longer they wait, the more that window will close.

Granted, Verlander told Passan that he's not going to just "say yes to anything," and he could very well play hard to get with free agency just around the corner. But thanks to his honesty with the press, the Tigers know what it's going to take to lock him up.

All they need to do is show Verlander the magic number.

 

If you want to talk baseball, hit me up on Twitter. 

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