With the Tigers' need for good starting pitching this offseason, attention has already fallen on their former aces Justin Verlander and Max Scherzer. Scherzer will be a free agent—having already received a qualifying offer once in his career—and with another monster season under his belt in 2020, the 37-year-old ace may be able to command as much as $40 million a season on a short two-or three-year deal. From the start, Scherzer was already too pricey for a Tigers’ club in dire need of a high-end shortstop, real help for the rotation, and several other depth pieces.
Justin Verlander was a far more realistic option financially, but also a pretty risky one. The 38-year-old had UCL reconstruction surgery in August of 2020 and missed all the 2021 season. Having earned $32 million a year on a two-year extension the past two seasons, Verlander seems bound to earn no more than $15 million a season on a short-term speculative deal should he elect free agency, with his age and return from major surgery making him a high-risk, high-reward play for teams looking to find top tier pitching on the cheap.
Debate about Verlander has raged all summer as the Detroit Tigers vaulted themselves into a position where contending in the AL Central in 2022 became a difficult proposition rather than an impossible one. It’s fairly unprecedented to have an elite pitcher in his late 30’s—already fairly rare—go from Cy Young award to Tommy John surgery in one year. Whatever projection systems might say, there just isn’t even a sample size of comparable pitchers to work from.
And so predictions will continue to be all over the map as Verlander’s return to major league action grows closer this offseason. Despite his legendary durability, work ethic, and conditioning regimen, and the fact that even if he comes back down a tick or two in average velocity, he should still have a really good pair of breaking balls, very good command, a good but rarely used changeup, all to go with a wealth of experience, his age will continue to make many very nervous about a major commitment in dollars.
As it turns out, these arguments may be made moot as Houston Astros’ owner Jim Crane indicated on Thursday that the club “would probably” extend a qualifying offer to Verlander. The qualifying offer was $18.9 million last year, and will presumably be set close to $20 million for 2021. Should that come to pass, it would put to bed any hopes of a reunion between Verlander and the Tigers.
Were the Tigers to sign a free agent with a qualifying offer attached, it would cost them their third-highest pick in the 2022 draft. That would be a compensation round B selection, coming right after the second full round of the draft. That’s a tough pick to give up for a young team that still needs to develop the ability to produce talent without picking near the top of the draft to keep the pipeline flowing and achieve their stated goal of becoming a sustainable contender year-in and year-out. It’s particularly tough to give up for a short-term deal to an aging superstar.
Of course, the Tigers may well give up that pick anyway, in order to sign the shortstop they desperately need, in which case the Tigers’ pick in the third round would also be surrendered in order to sign Verlander. Either way, it’s still tough to give up a draft slot for a player you wouldn’t want to sign for more than two or three seasons. Even more so as the entire qualifying offer setup seems unlikely to survive this winter’s Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA) negotiations.
The big question is whether Verlander wouldn’t just take the offer, allowing himself a full season with his current, highly successful, team with which to pursue a second World Series ring, and to rebuild faith in his arm and his long-term value. A number between $19 and $20 million is substantially more than he’s going to get per year should he opt for free agency.
Now, that possibility may be where Crane’s “probably” comes in. Do the Astros want to get an extra pick? Or are they actually planning to drop close to $20 million on one year of Verlander? A year in which he presumably will take time to find his way back to whatever peak level he’s able to achieve at this point? Hard to say. If they get the sense that Verlander would simply take the offer to rebuild value and then hit free agency after the 2022 season, will they still make that offer? Or do they believe he’ll test free agency either way?
This isn’t a done deal yet, of course. So we’ll have to see how it plays out. The Astros won’t have to make the decision until after the World Series ends. But it certainly seems like accepting the qualifying offer would make the most sense for Verlander himself. Even leaving aside the value of the compensation pick a team would forfeit, it’s just difficult to imagine a team guaranteeing him more than say, $30 million on a two-year deal. A team like the New York Yankees or Los Angeles Dodgers could certainly take that kind of chance, or even go bigger if needed. The Tigers could as well, but it would likely mean giving up both their third and fourth highest picks in the draft, and in what is probably the last year of the qualifying offer system as currently constructed.
A player like Justin Verlander suffers from no shortage of self-belief. One has to imagine that he has every confidence he’ll be back in a big way in 2022, and by accepting the qualifying offer and betting on himself, will be able to command a much larger multi-year deal next offseason. The Tigers are in a pretty good place to take a short-term risk should Verlander decline the offer, but all tolled, it just seems quite unlikely for a team with as many needs as they do in order to compete for a postseason berth in 2022.