On Monday afternoon, the news broke of Justin Verlander signing a two-year, $86 million dollar deal with the Mets, with a vesting option for a third year. The Yankees’ crosstown rivals were always top candidates to sign the veteran, and they ultimately ponied up the dough to reunite him with Max Scherzer in Queens. But what’s relevant to us here is the question of whether or not the Yanks should have at least matched the deal that Verlander ultimately received. A high-end starter seems to be something of interest to the Yankees, if not a priority, and this could show how far they are (or aren’t) willing to go to pursue them.
Entering his age-40 season in 2023, Verlander is coming off of his first year post-Tommy John surgery. That first year back, of course, was one of the best of his career. The veteran right-hander pitched 175 innings, good enough for a 1.75 ERA and 2.66 FIP, as well as his third Cy Young Award in the process of winning his second championship in Houston.
It’s no secret to Yankee fans that Verlander is handily among the absolute best pitchers of his generation. The 2014 season was a relative low point for the future Hall of Famer, as he seemed to be on the decline after a solid run of dominant pitching. Since then however, he has remained one of the elite starting pitchers in the game as he’s gotten older, turning in excellent season after excellent season, outside of the two years he missed for Tommy John. He’s old, but he’s a good enough pitcher that the eye-popping deal he got is neither surprising, nor out of line.
From the Yankees’ perspective, a reliable stud with a long track record of success (with advanced age as well) doesn’t sound half-bad. My colleague Peter discussed as much in his free agent target post on Verlander. For whatever it’s worth, the Bombers at least seemed to be in the running to sign him:
Hear that the Yankees were in contact w/ Justin Verlander in recent days, but didn't want to go to the third year w/ him at that price.— Brendan Kuty (@BrendanKutyNJ) December 5, 2022
Last winter, the Yankees balked at giving Verlander an option for a second year, and thus had to watch as he returned to the Astros rotation and steamrolled them in the playoffs yet again. Now, for the second consecutive offseason, an extra-year option appears to have been the snag for the Yankees’ front office.
Verlander comes with a different kind of risk than other free agents. His age obviously limits the number of years he’d get, but it also introduces the added possibility of a steep drop-off. Two years at $43 million per year is no small deal, but it’s an interesting one the Yankees probably should have considered.
As mentioned, the AAV on Verlander’s deal was always going to be high, but there was never going to be a long-term commitment like there is with other free agents, and two years with an optional third is what he ended up with. All things considered, Verlander has a very solid health record, so a deal like this actually feels fairly low-risk.
Would I go out and sign a bunch of 40-year-olds? No, but I think that JV is the definition of an exception in this case. Given how long and consistently he has maintained his level of success, seeing him completely drop-off would be quite the surprise. Now, expecting another Cy Young season would be unfair, but his floor is probably something like a solid No. 2 starter.
Regardless of how close Verlander performs to his 2022 self across town, any team like the Yankees could use a front of the line starter on a short-term high money deal. New York in particular, with some money to spend and Jameson Taillon likely on the move, could use a big addition in the rotation. Perhaps the Yankees would be more willing to offer a longer deal and more total money to someone a bit younger like Carlos Rodón. Either way, with two of the top three free agent starters off the board, the Yankees are possibly showing a lack of urgency when it comes to this front.
It is also worth noting that the team is operating on Hal Steinbrenner and Brian Cashman’s self-imposed budget, and realistically should be willing to sign anyone that would be an appropriate fit. As true as that may be for any team, however, that is not the world we live in.
On the bright side, we won’t have to worry about the Yankees facing Verlander with the Astros anymore. On the more gloomy side, another one of the top available starting pitchers is off the board, on what could end up being a very appealing, somewhat low-risk deal that the Yankees could have afforded. What this decision means exactly for their offseason plan going forward remains to be seen, but for at least on one of the top guys in Verlander, they weren’t wiling to go all the way for him.