Will Verlander become the first $200M pitcher?

DETROIT — Justin Verlander has a legitimate chance to become baseball’s first $200 million pitcher sometime between now and when his current contract expires after the 2014 season.

The six-year contract for $147 million that Zack Greinke just signed with the Los Angeles Dodgers confirmed that dollar plateau as a distinct possibility for Verlander.

The only pitcher to receive more guaranteed money than Greinke is the Yankees’ CC Sabathia, who signed for $161 million over seven years before the 2009 season. The extension he signed one year ago ballooned that to eight years for $182 million, and it would grow to nine years and $207 if the $25 million for 2017 vests based on Sabathia maintaining left shoulder health during the 2016 season. But he is guaranteed only a $5 million club buyout, pushing the total to $187 million.

Verlander, 29, is sure to surpass both of them because he is arguably the best pitcher in baseball.

If Greinke, 29, is worth a pitcher-record $24.5 million a year and Sabathia, 32, is worth $22.8 million, Verlander should be a cinch for $25 million or beyond.

And if Sabathia, whose weight could become an issue, is worth eight guaranteed years then Verlander surely is.

So, do the math. Eight years times $25 million is $200 million.

Dodgers ace and 2011 Cy Young winner Clayton Kershaw, 24, is being speculated by The Sporting News as a $200 million contract pitcher. And Dylan Hernandez of the Los Angeles Times noted that $30 million seasons could be in Kershaw’s future.
Verlander or Hernandez, however, likely will reach $200 million before Kershaw because neither is currently locked into the two years for $19 million deal that Kershaw has before becoming a free agent in 2015.

I would have to think Tigers GM Dave Dombrowski will approach Verlander and his agents, Mark Pieper and Mike Milchin of SFX, about just such a deal sometime between now and the beginning of the 2014 season.

There are at least five good reasons why doing so, and making Verlander a Tiger for life, makes all the sense in the world:

First and foremost is his level of accomplishment at a young age. He won the 2011 Cy Young Award and finished a very close second to Tampa Bay’s David Price this season.

Second, is the Felix Hernandez factor. King Felix, who received a five-year, $78 million contract two weeks before Verlander signed his last deal in 2010 for five years and $80 million, also becomes a free agent after 2014. Seattle is attempting to make him a Mariner for life, and if they beat Detroit to the punch that could raise the bar for Verlander to $210 million or beyond.

Third, is Verlander’s durability. He has surpassed 200 innings pitched in six consecutive seasons, and led the AL in innings pitched in three of the last four years. Verlander is known for his stringent conditioning; he tweeted about his first offseason workout three weeks ago.

Fourth, is Verlander’s importance to the community and club. He’s very involved in charities and fan interaction, and is beloved in the D. He’s a great teammate and mentor. The intangibles make him the complete package, and he openly talks about wanting to stay with the Tigers.

Fifth, is the danger of losing him. What happens if Verlander is a Cy Young contender in each of the next two seasons and becomes a free agent? Well, that’s easy. He breaks the bank and could very easily do so with the Yankees, Dodgers or some other high-roller.

But it is not in Verlander’s nature to push for untold riches over security. Verlander would’ve become a free agent after last season, fresh off 24 wins and his first Cy, had he not signed the current deal before the 2010 season. But he surrendered three years of free agent money for two years of big money before free agency.

Verlander is averaging $16 million over his five-year deal — which was back-loaded with $20 million per year in 2012, 2013 and 2014.

So, Verlander got rich and built his dream house in Virginia and bought his dream cars. And the Tigers got a real deal considering that Sabathia, Greinke, Cliff Lee ($24 million) Cole Hamels ($21.9 million) and Roy Halladay ($20 million) signed deals worth as much or more than his current $20 million since he signed the last contract.

Baseball already has four $200 million contracts. Management sees superstar hitters as more predictable commodities. Pitchers are harder to guarantee because arms can be fragile.

But look for Verlander to be the first hurler to break the fraternity that includes Alex Rodriguez (10 years, $275 million), Albert Pujols (10 years, $240 million), Joey Votto (10 years, $225 million) and Verlander’s teammate, Prince Fielder (nine years, $214 million).
And the sooner the Tigers can make it happen, the better.