Ranking the Top 10 Landing Spots for Astros' Justin Verlander in MLB Free Agency

Zachary D. Rymer@zachrymerMLB Lead WriterNovember 14, 2021

Ranking the Top 10 Landing Spots for Astros' Justin Verlander in MLB Free Agency

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    Matt Slocum/Associated Press

    Now more than a year removed from having Tommy John surgery in October 2020, Justin Verlander is looking to get back to work in 2022.

    But first, he will need to decide what team he wants to play for.

    The 38-year-old might return to the Houston Astros, who extended him a qualifying offer that he must accept or reject by Nov. 17. The general expectation, though, is that the two-time Cy Young Award winner and one-time MVP will go through Door No. 2 and test the open market.

    As for his value and which teams are a good fit for him, let's discuss the former and then count down 10 possibilities for the latter.

What Will Verlander Be Looking for in Free Agency?

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    Alex Brandon/Associated Press

    Two years ago, Verlander won the second of his two Cy Young Awards after striking out a career-high 300 batters with a 2.58 ERA over 223 innings. He also accumulated 7.4 rWAR to further add to his lead over all other pitchers in that department since 2006. 

    Alas, the next time that Verlander took a major league mound on July 24, 2020 is also the last time he did so. He initially tried to rehab the forearm strain that sidelined him, but the effort proved to be for naught when he finally went under the knife in October.

    Given that he clocked at 94-97 mph with his fastball at a recent workout, according to Joel Sherman of the New York Post, Verlander seems to be progressing well. Sherman also reported that between 15 and 20 teams were there to observe him.

    If so, accepting the Astros' qualifying offer is far from Verlander's only option. And should he reject it, he'll presumably be looking to do better than the $18.4 million it would have paid him in 2022.

    Signing him could cost a team $20 million for one year or $40 million over two, if not more. Though plenty of teams can afford those rates, it's fair to assume that Verlander will also value comfort and a chance to win another World Series ring.

    With that in mind, let's dive into a list of potential suitors, beginning with a team that Verlander knows well.

10. Detroit Tigers

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    Gene J. Puskar/Associated Press

    Verlander spent the first 13-and-a-half seasons of his major league career with the Detroit Tigers. They're now seemingly hoping that he's willing to go home again.

    The Tigers were also present at Verlander's recent workout, per Britt Ghiroli of The Athletic. And with less than $100 million projected on their 2022 payroll, there should be plenty of space for him in their books.

    The Tigers have more to offer Verlander than just money and familiarity, though. They're the only team that can offer a reunion with A.J. Hinch, who managed Verlander for parts of three seasons when both were with the Astros between 2017 and 2019.

    Verlander also might be enthusiastic about playing dual roles as both an ace and a mentor in Detroit. Incumbent starters Casey Mize, Tarik Skubal and Matt Manning all check in under the age of 25.

    However, it's unclear whether Detroit's contention timeline will pass muster for Verlander. The Tigers made progress amid a respectable 77-85 season in 2021, yet they're almost certainly more than just one great starting pitcher away from getting over the hump.

9. New York Mets

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    Noah K. Murray/Associated Press

    Verlander spent the first 13-and-a-half seasons of his major league career with the Detroit Tigers. They're now seemingly hoping that he's willing to go home again.

    The Tigers were also present at Verlander's recent workout, per Britt Ghiroli of The Athletic. And with less than $100 million projected on their 2022 payroll, there should be plenty of space for him in their books.

    The Tigers have more to offer Verlander than just money and familiarity, though. They're the only team that can offer a reunion with A.J. Hinch, who managed Verlander for parts of three seasons when both were with the Astros between 2017 and 2019.

    Verlander also might be enthusiastic about playing dual roles as both an ace and a mentor in Detroit. Incumbent starters Casey Mize, Tarik Skubal and Matt Manning all check in under the age of 25.

    However, it's unclear whether Detroit's contention timeline will pass muster for Verlander. The Tigers made progress amid a respectable 77-85 season in 2021, yet they're almost certainly more than just one great starting pitcher away from getting over the hump.

8. Los Angeles Angels

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    Tony Gutierrez/Associated Press

    The Los Angeles Angels starters' ERA dipped below 5.00 this season for the first time since 2018, but only to 4.78. As such, they unsurprisingly want to make a splash.

    "Frontline starting pitching is tough to acquire," general manager Perry Minasian said, according to ESPN's Alden Gonzalez. "It's very difficult. That being said, we'd like to significantly improve our rotation. That's an area where we'll definitely look for a certain type of quality."

    Minasian confirmed that he had sent someone to scout Verlander's workout. He's precisely the kind of frontline starter they're looking for, and they might tempt him with both money and the chance to join forces with Shohei Ohtani, Mike Trout and Anthony Rendon.

    However, the Angels are riding a string of six straight losing seasons. And in spite of their stars, the shortage of depth on their roster isn't exactly subtle. Raisel Iglesias' free agency has opened up a hole at closer, and Luis Rengifo isn't a workable everyday option at shortstop.

    To sign Verlander, the Angels either have to promise to make more moves or go ahead and make them preemptively to satisfy any doubts he might have.

7. San Francisco Giants

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    John Hefti/Associated Press

    To author a worthy follow-up to this year's 107-win effort, the San Francisco Giants will need to plug the gaping holes in their roster.

    With Buster Posey retired and Brandon Belt a free agent, the Giants have two holes in their lineup as well as four in their rotation after breakout ace Logan Webb. Kevin Gausman, Anthony DeSclafani, Alex Wood and Johnny Cueto are all free agents.

    Both Ken Davidoff of the New York Post and Anthony Castrovince of MLB.com have the Giants tabbed as a prime suitor for Verlander. John Shea of the San Francisco Chronicle reported that they were indeed present at the veteran's workout.

    This isn't the first time that Giants president of baseball operations Farhan Zaidi has had Verlander on his radar. He was with the Los Angeles Dodgers when they tried and failed to trade for Verlander 2017.

    Since the Giants could spend as much as $100 million this winter, there isn't much question that they can afford Verlander. But even in spite of what happened in 2021, they could be in the same boat as the Angels in that they'll need to add other players before they can convince Verlander to come aboard.

6. St. Louis Cardinals

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    Jeff Roberson/Associated Press

    The St. Louis Cardinals are no stranger to veteran starting pitchers. They handed 63 starts to pitchers 35 or older in 2021, easily the most in Major League Baseball.

    But two of those guys, Jon Lester and J.A. Happ, are now free agents. Adam Wainwright is coming back, but he'll be 41 years old by the end of next season. 

    Although it's unclear whether they scouted his workout, the Cardinals look like a possibility for Verlander. And if they do approach him, he might be interested in them as more than just a team that's made the playoffs three years in a row.

    After leading the majors with 47 outs above average in 2021, the Cardinals might just have MLB's best defense. That's never a bad thing for a pitcher, yet it might be an especially good thing for a pitcher who's pushing 40 and whose pitches might not be the same in MLB's post-sticky stuff era.

    After declining options on Carlos Martinez and Matt Carpenter, the Cardinals should have the cash to afford Verlander. What might give them pause is a creeping notion that a 38-year-old coming off Tommy John might not be the stabilizer their rotation needs right now.

5. Houston Astros

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    Tony Gutierrez/Associated Press

    Might Verlander return to the team he's been with since that fateful trade in August 2017?

    After all, that could be as simple as him accepting Houston's $18.4 million qualifying offer. Even if he doesn't, GM James Click doesn't seem ready to close the door on a reunion with one of the best pitchers in the organization's recent history.

    "We've kept a close eye on him," Click told reporters at the GM meetings. "He's been great about letting us know when he's going to be throwing so we can get in there and get an eye on him, see how he's doing. The videos I've seen have been awesome."

    With Carlos Correa likely to depart Houston as a free agent, Verlander might have some reservations regarding the Astros' championship window. But then again, they were just in the World Series, and Jose Altuve, Alex Bregman, Yordan Alvarez and the club's assorted young pitchers aren't going anywhere.

    Yet Bob Nightengale of USA Today reported Friday that Astros players "revolted" when Verlander was slated to throw out a ceremonial first pitch during the postseason. They didn't like that he hadn't been around all season as he recovered from surgery. If so, that grudge might still be there.

4. New York Yankees

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    Adam Hunger/Associated Press

    The New York Yankees were but one of many teams at Verlander's workout, yet they are the only known team to have actually had discussions with his camp. That's according to Pat Ragazzo of Sports Illustrated, who also noted that no deal is imminent.

    Signing Verlander would fill the Yankees' need for another top-of-the-rotation starter. It would also have the bonus effect of reuniting him with his former co-ace in Houston, Gerrit Cole.

    Just how good were Cole and Verlander as a tandem? Well, each topped 30 starts and 5 WAR in both 2018 and 2019. They were the only pitching duo to do that.

    Factoring in that the Yankees also figure to have a healthy Luis Severino, their rotation likely wouldn't be nearly as top-heavy in 2022 as it was in 2021. Cole had nine starts with at least 10 punchouts, while nobody else had more than two.

    But as they need a new shortstop and left-handed hitters in general, the Yankees arguably have bigger fish to fry in their lineup. If they have to choose between taking care of those needs and signing Verlander, they could conceivably prioritize the former.

3. Boston Red Sox

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    Steve Helber/Associated Press

    Starting pitching isn't why the Boston Red Sox flamed out of the American League Championship Series. That was the offense's fault.

    Still, the Red Sox would probably be in the market for a starter even if Eduardo Rodriguez wasn't a free agent. Because while their starting pitching was never a full-blown problem in 2021, it also rarely (if ever) looked like a strength.

    The Red Sox were at Verlander's workout, according to Alex Speier of the Boston Globe. They're yet another team that can offer him a reunion with someone from his past, as Alex Cora was Verlander's bench coach with the Astros in 2017.

    Plus, a trio of Verlander, Chris Sale and Nathan Eovaldi sure looks nasty on paper. All three can light up the radar gun, and it wasn't long ago that Verlander and Sale were the two most prolific WAR producers in the entire American League.

    However, it would be risky for the Red Sox to put their rotation in the hands of not one, not two, but three 30-somethings who've undergone Tommy John surgery. So even if Verlander is a good fit for them in theory, it would be understandable if he isn't their first choice.

2. Toronto Blue Jays

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    Adam Hunger/Associated Press

    If Verlander is looking to catch on with a team on the rise, he could do worse than the Toronto Blue Jays.

    They just missed qualifying for the postseason with 91 wins, yet they did so with the third-best run differential in the AL at plus-183. Vladimir Guerrero Jr. paced an offense that led the majors with 262 home runs, while Robbie Ray put forth a Cy Young-caliber season from Toronto's rotation.

    With Ray now a free agent, Verlander is on the team's radar as a potential replacement. Though he clarified it as likely being "due diligence," TSN's Scott Mitchell heard that the Blue Jays were present at Verlander's workout.

    What might move the needle for the Blue Jays is the thought that Verlander could be more than just a co-ace alongside Jose Berrios and Hyun-Jin Ryu. He might also impart some wisdom on Nate Pearson, who's the same sort of fireballing prospect that Verlander was back in the mid 2000s.

    And yet, there's a decent chance that signing Verlander won't become Plan A for Toronto. Ross Atkins, the team's GM, has "a lot of interest" in re-signing both Ray and MVP finalist Marcus Semien, and it does seem as though the funds are there to make both deals happen.

1. Los Angeles Dodgers

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    Brynn Anderson/Associated Press

    The Los Angeles Dodgers have already made one addition to their starting rotation, signing left-hander Andrew Heaney to a one-year, $8.5 million deal.

    However, Heaney is in no way a proper replacement for either Max Scherzer or Clayton Kershaw, both of whom are free agents. Not in the way that Verlander would be, anyway.

    It's unclear whether the Dodgers were present at Verlander's workout, but it would be a shocker if they weren't. Not just because he'd fit in their rotation, but also because it would be a case of president of baseball operations Andrew Friedman not rekindling the interest he had in Verlander in 2017.

    If the Dodgers do come calling with a competitive offer, Verlander might be all too happy to sign up with baseball's winningest team since 2013. It's not as though they're about to deviate from that path, as their roster is still extraordinarily strong even without Scherzer, Kershaw and Corey Seager.

    Joining the Dodgers would also give Verlander a chance to smooth things over with a fanbase that's still sour about what happened in the World Series four years ago. He and his wife, Kate Upton, already have a house in Beverly Hills as well.

    So in all, what's not to like?

                 

    Stats courtesy of Baseball Reference and FanGraphs.

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