LAKELAND, Fla. — Felix Hernandez (officially) has his $175 million deal, and we in the baseball media have moved onto a new fascination: Will it be Clayton Kershaw or Justin Verlander who becomes to $200 million pitching contracts what Roger Bannister was to the 4-minute mile?
Baseball people love numbers. We know the important ones by heart: 755 home runs, 56 consecutive games, a .406 batting average. But financial landmarks don’t resonate in quite the same way. I said as much to Verlander at the Detroit Tigers’ spring training base Tuesday morning, telling him I couldn’t recall baseball’s first $100 million pitcher off the top of my head.
“Kevin Brown, wasn’t it?” Verlander said with a grin.
Brown did so as a free agent, and the prospect of testing the market remains tantalizing to Verlander. He doesn’t appear to be in any rush to sign a contract extension, record-setting or otherwise. As a man of unique talent, abundant wealth and rather robust self-esteem, the opportunity for Verlander to handpick his baseball home may prove irresistible.
Verlander has two seasons left on a five-year, $80 million deal. He’s been smart with his money, by all indications, so it’s not as if he needs more guaranteed cash now. Which leads us to a pretty important fact: The Tigers and Verlander’s representatives at SFX Baseball haven’t even started meaningful discussions about a new deal.
“If they want to start talks, I’m happy,” Verlander told me Tuesday. “I’ve got ears open. But I feel good. I feel healthy. I love where I’m at, at this age. I’m not worried about anything going forward.”
So … The Yankees, Dodgers and other heavyweights might want to build in a little extra payroll flexibility for the 2014-2015 offseason. You know, just in case.
Verlander is famously competitive, which has led many to assume he would jump at the chance to break Hernandez’s record for the largest pitching contract in baseball history — particularly if a 2 followed the dollar sign. But that’s an oversimplification. Besides, if he tops Hernandez but Kershaw beats them both, does the date on his contract carry that much cachet?
Verlander, who turns 30 next week, appears more motivated by other pursuits — namely, a World Series title, 300 victories, and election to the Hall of Fame. Basically, he aspires to be the Nolan Ryan of his generation. Ryan has a brand, in addition to 324 wins, which is why you’ve seen him on television commercials well into his retirement. Verlander wants that, too.
If Verlander covets a record-setting contract, he might be able to get that from the Tigers. But if he would rather choose his own employer — after hearing about his awesomeness in pitch meetings with general managers and marketing partners from coast to coast — he must wait two years before embarking on the ego trip of a lifetime. That’s a monumental win-win. And Verlander, more self-aware than many athletes, recognizes that.
Verlander often talks about how much he loves playing in Detroit. As someone who has covered him for seven seasons, I believe that is genuine. Fans in Michigan adore him, because he is a major reason the formerly irrelevant Tigers have won two pennants since 2006. Verlander has taken impeccable care of himself — he’s never been on the disabled list in the major leagues — while rising to his present status as the game’s best pitcher. All parties in the relationship — Verlander, the organization, the fans — have it pretty good.
But mention free agency, and Verlander sounds intrigued. The Tigers made him the No. 2 overall pick in the 2004 amateur draft. He’s been a loyal employee of the organization ever since. It’s just that Verlander, to his credit, is candid enough to acknowledge what many prospective free agents won’t.
Hell yes, he’s curious.
“Absolutely,” he said Tuesday. “I think that’d be a blast. If I have two more years like I just had, it would be pretty interesting.”
Interesting? Yes, a 31-year-old Verlander on the open market would be interesting and quite a few adjectives beyond that. If Verlander becomes a free agent, he could be the most-talked-about player in baseball for roughly one calendar year — from the day he arrives in Lakeland next spring until the moment he agrees to a new contract.
And he wouldn’t mind the attention.
“You know how competitive I am,” Verlander said. “It’s kind of fun thinking about having teams battle for you.”
For Verlander to pass on that, he would want assurances from the Tigers that they intend to maintain a championship-caliber roster — and payroll — for the duration of his deal. Such promises come from ownership, and Tigers owner Mike Ilitch is 83.
Ilitch has been the driving force behind many of the team’s big acquisitions over the years, from Ivan Rodriguez and Magglio Ordoñez to Miguel Cabrera and Prince Fielder. No one is too sure how the organization will operate after Ilitch’s stewardship of the club is over.
“If they were to start talking about an extension and say, ‘We only have a two-year window to win a World Series,’ that’s not exactly what I want to hear — and I don’t think that’s the case whatsoever,” Verlander said. “You look at Mr. Ilitch. He’s been — in my opinion — the best owner in baseball. A year ago he signed a guy [Fielder] to a 9-year, $200-million-something dollar deal. That shows you it’s not just a ‘window’ plan. It’s a ‘future’ plan.
“If they did want to extend (my contract), obviously that would take quite a commitment on their part. That shows a sign, too, that they’re planning for the future.”
Verlander said last year that he’s wondered what it would be like to play in a big market. He also believes Detroit has turned into a larger baseball market, by virtue of the Tigers’ success. Perhaps a World Series title in 2013 or 2014 would entice Verlander to stay in Detroit and strengthen his legacy — something Albert Pujols (regrettably) declined to do in St. Louis. But it’s hard to know precisely what Verlander wants. He may need all of the next two years to figure it out.
You know the funniest thing? Derek Jeter has the same amount of time left on his contract with the Yankees.