Detroit — A large majority of Tigers’ nation is likely thinking about how glorious it would be to welcome Justin Verlander back. What a story, right? Big No. 35 on the mound at Comerica Park wearing the Old English D once again, pitching the Tigers back into contention.
Almost too good to be true. Kind of like a fairy tale. Which, sadly, as we sit here today, two weeks before a likely industry shutdown, it probably is.
From the beginning, the odds of the Tigers signing Verlander this winter were long against. It’s been reported that he wants a multi-year deal. He was expected to turn down the Astros’ $18.4 million qualifying offer, so it’s going to take at least $20 million a year to start a conversation. He’s 39 and coming off Tommy John surgery.
Taking an expensive risk on an older pitcher, even one with Verlander’s Hall of Fame track record, seemed to run counter to general manager Al Avila’s vow to take a measured approach to free agency and not spend like a drunken sailor this winter.
Committing $77 million and five years to left-hander Eduardo Rodriguez seemed another indication the Tigers weren’t chasing Verlander — at least not as a primary target. Especially since they are still very much in the hunt for one of the elite free agent shortstops — specifically, it seems, Carlos Correa, who will command a contract worth more than $30 million annually and $300 million full-term.
If the pitching market falls apart later in the winter and Verlander finds there are no multi-year options available to him — which is highly doubtful given how robust it is now — maybe the Tigers’ pursuit will become more aggressive. For now, though, if the Tigers do add another starting pitcher, it’s more likely to be a far less expensive one.
Listen, Verlander isn’t going to give the Tigers a reunion discount, nor should he. He’s not looking to come back and be a mentor to a young staff or help the franchise sell tickets every fifth day. This is one of the most decorated pitchers of his or any other generation. Two-time Cy Young Award winner, Most Valuable Player, more than 3,000 strikeouts and 200 wins, a career WAR of 72.2, an opponent slash-line over 16 season of .228/.287/.365.
He’s coming back to dominate and win championships. That’s his MO. Yes, he’s 39 with more than 3,000 innings under his belt (2,988 in the regular season, 187.2 postseason). Yes, he’s pitched only six innings in two years coming off major elbow surgery. The risk is clear.
But he was throwing 95-96 mph at his showcase last month and his arm and body weren’t even close to being fully built up. He’s going to go through the usual command and consistency issues all pitchers do coming off Tommy John, but who is going to bet against him being a productive pitcher at some point next season?
Verlander knows his window is closing and he wants to pitch on a serious contender. The Tigers aren’t there yet. His home base these days is on the West Coast where there just happens to be two serious contenders with deep pockets — the Giants and Dodgers — and a third team, the Angels, whose window of opportunity (with Shohei Ohtani and Mike Trout) is closing as fast as Verlander’s.
On the East Coast, the Red Sox, Yankees and Blue Jays could also come courting.
There is a part of Verlander’s heart that remains a Tiger. There’s a good chance there will be an English D on his cap when his plaque goes on the wall at Cooperstown. But it’s best to take the heart out of this. Sentimentality and nostalgia often get in the way of winning.
The reality is, bringing Verlander back doesn’t seem to make sense for the Tigers right now. Nor does coming back to Detroit in 2022 make sense for Verlander.
Which stinks, for sure. We don’t get many fairy tale sports stories around here. Would’ve been nice.