I thought Justin Verlander would leave the Detroit Tigers. I really did.
Verlander, with two years left on his contract, told me at the start of spring training that he was “curious” about free agency.
“Absolutely,” he said then. “I think that’d be a blast. If I have two more years like I just had, it would be pretty interesting.”
Of the attention he would command on the open market, he said, “You know how competitive I am. It’s kind of fun thinking about having teams battle for you.”
So, how did we go from those mid-February comments to this tweet from @JustinVerlander at 12:45 p.m. ET Friday?
“I love this city & the fans — couldn’t be more excited to spend my career here! We’re going to bring a World Series to Detroit!!!”
Well, most obviously, the Tigers offered Verlander a five-year, $140 million contract extension and the chance to become (at least for now) the highest-paid pitcher in baseball history. Guaranteed money of that magnitude has a way of making someone feel suddenly less “curious” about free agency.
This may sound odd, but I don’t think it was the sheer cash Verlander wanted. (As a practical matter, he has all the money he’ll need after signing an $80 million extension three years ago.) To Verlander — 30 years old, with a robust ego — this contract is public proof of something he’s long believed with every fiber of his 6-foot-5 frame: He’s the best.
That, I suspect, is one of the biggest reasons Verlander signed the contract: It is the ultimate status symbol, irrefutable proof of his standing among the game’s greats.
But Verlander’s competitiveness is another key factor here. On multiple occasions over the past several months, he told me he wouldn’t re-sign with the Tigers unless he was given assurances about the franchise’s long-term direction. He didn’t want to commit to Detroit long-term, only to have the organization rebuild with a diminished payroll in a few years’ time. Detroit isn’t a major market in the truest sense, but owner Mike Ilitch has made it feel that way.
For Verlander, being the best player on a non-competitive team would be his idea of baseball hell. Apparently, Ilitch and president/general manager Dave Dombrowski have vowed that won’t happen. And that’s why Verlander’s tweet mentioned those two words: World Series. He’s the rare mid-career pitcher who speaks openly about a desire to reach the Hall of Fame and what he wishes for his legacy to be.
Verlander has won the Cy Young Award, the MVP, the Rookie of the Year, started the All-Star Game and thrown two no-hitters. But he’s 0-3 with a 7.20 ERA in three career World Series starts — a major reason the Tigers went a combined 1-8 in the 2006 and 2012 Fall Classics. By signing with the Tigers, Verlander is saying: I know where the empty line on my résumé is, and this still is the best team to help me address it.
Verlander hardly took a hometown discount to stay in Detroit, but Tigers fans will embrace this news as if he did. He will get a massive ovation at Comerica Park when he stands on the third-base line for the home opener. It isn’t often that contemporary players spend an entire career with one franchise — even rarer for teams not named the New York Yankees. But Verlander has a chance to do that with the Tigers, because they knew exactly what it would take to make him stay.