McCosky: Tigers still not in position to make fairy-tale ending come true for Verlander

Detroit News

Detroit — Here we go again.

Justin Verlander, as the entire baseball world expected, opted out of his contract with the Houston Astros on Thursday and, on the heels of a World Series championship and a presumptive Cy Young Award has, entering his age-40 season, put himself on the free-agent market.

Which will bring another round of dreams and chatter about a Justin Verlander reunion in Detroit. It’s becoming an annual event. Even though the answer, just as it was last offseason, is still a hard “not happening.”

When I talked to Verlander in the Astros clubhouse in early May, he reiterated his love for the city of Detroit, the fans and the organization. Without a doubt, all things being equal, finishing his Hall of Fame-worthy career back where it started would be storybook. He’d love it.

But this is real life and all things aren’t equal.

The Tigers weren’t last year and won’t be this year in position to compete for, let alone win, a championship. And that is priority one for Verlander. Anybody who watched him during the postseason and especially in the World Series and saw his unbound joy in those moments, knows that he’s not going to spend his final years in the game playing on a non-contending team.

He has great empathy for what Miguel Cabrera has endured these last five seasons. He’s not going to put himself in the same spot. Especially with so much leverage entering this free-agent market.

Think about this: Verlander got a two-year, $50 million guaranteed contract last offseason, after he had been shut down for nearly two full seasons after Tommy John surgery. What’s his market now after he made 28 starts in the regular season, pitched 175 innings, posted a 1.75 ERA and then won Game 5 of the World Series?

He pitched so brilliantly that leaving $25 million on the table at age 39 was a no-brainer. Incredible.

He will be seeking another multi-year deal, probably something in the same average annual value range of Max Scherzer’s deal with the Mets, who are paying him an average of $43.33 million over three years. Scherzer signed his deal at age 37. So for Verlander, a baseline comp might be two years, $75 million.

Not many markets can bear that financial weight. Snooping around at the general managers meetings Tuesday, besides the Astros, who certainly will be in the bidding, the Yankees, Dodgers and Braves seem to be likely suitors.

The Dodgers seem like a natural fit for Verlander, at least from where I sit.

If you can take the sentimentality out of it, which president Scott Harris absolutely must and will do, it would make very little sense for the Tigers to pony up between $37 million and $40 million to one starting pitcher, even one as great and box-office friendly as Verlander. Not if the mission is as CEO Christopher Ilitch has stated — to build a sustainable winning team.

There are still way too many holes to fill. Looking at it optimistically, the Tigers are somewhat set at shortstop (Javier Báez), second base (Jonathan Schoop) and center field (Riley Greene). As we sit here today, they have two healthy starting pitchers (Eduardo Rodriguez and Tyler Alexander, who may or may not be tendered a contract by next week).

As it is, even with a healthy payroll balance, Harris won’t be able to fill every hole this offseason. And as much as we love our relievers around here, the Tigers don’t have that many script-flipping trade chips at their disposal. So to blow the budget on one starting pitcher, even if his name is Justin Verlander, doesn’t seem conducive to putting a winning team on the field.

Nor, frankly, does paying catcher Willson Contreras $20-plus million a year for four years. The Tigers were linked to the veteran free agent at the GM meetings, but Harris, without talking specifically about Contreras, indicated he was looking for a short-term upgrade at catcher, buying time for the likes of Jake Rogers (the last man standing from the Tigers’ return-in-trade for Verlander, incidentally), Dillon Dingler or Josh Crouch to develop.

Harris might’ve been blowing smoke to disguise the club’s real interest, but more likely the Contreras rumors were sparked by his agent. But we shall see. The Tigers haven’t given a seven-figure, multi-year deal to a catcher since Pudge Rodriguez.

But I digress.

The point is, it sucks that it’s taken this long for the Tigers to get back on their feet after doing liposuction on a bloated, $200-million payroll. It sucks that the far-too-sluggish recovery cost a lot of good people their jobs (Al Avila, David Chadd, Scott Pleis and others).

And it sucks that the length of recovery — extended now by the installation of a new surgical team — has effectively killed what would have been, to Tigers Nation, a fairy tale ending to Justin Verlander’s career.

chris.mccosky@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @cmccosky

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