By Jay Jaffe
Last month, I explored the possibility that either Justin Verlander or Clayton Kershaw would be the first pitcher to sign a $200 million deal. On Friday, we got a partial answer. The Tigers announced a five-year, $140 million extension for their 30-year-old ace, on top of the two years (this one and 2014) and $40 million he has remaining on his current deal. That brings his total guaranteed salary to $180 million over seven years, surpassing the $175 million that Felix Hernandez will receive over the same 2013-19 time span.
On top of that, Verlander has a $22 million vesting option for 2020, which would be triggered if he finishes in the top five of the Cy Young voting in 2019. That would take the total package to $202 million, but since it's not guaranteed money, we can't legitimately call Verlander the first $200 million pitcher, though for the moment at least, he owns the title of the game's highest-paid pitcher.
Given his dominance over his seven-year major league career, Verlander has earned that distinction, but whether he'll earn that money going forward is another question. Long-term contracts for pitchers are high-stakes gambles that often don't pay off in the end. For a stark reminder, one need only look to the news of the previous 24 hours, a cycle in which the Mets announced that Johan Santana -- who at one time held highest-paid distinction via his six-year, $137.5 million deal -- will likely miss the 2013 season due to a shoulder capsule tear, a repeat of the injury that cost him the entirety of the 2011 campaign.
Verlander has put together quite a résumé in his seven seasons: six Triple Crown titles (three for strikeouts, two for wins, one for ERA), five All-Star appearances, a Rookie of the Year award, an MVP award and a Cy Young award. He's the only player besides Don Newcombe to win all three, and the only one besides Sandy Koufax to win the Triple Crown, Cy Young and MVP in the same season. He's also got three other top five finishes in the Cy Young voting (including second last year), has been part of two pennant winners, in 2006 and 2012, and has tossed two no-hitters.
Over that seven-year time span, he's been the game's third-most valuable pitcher, with 36.2 WAR, behind only Roy Halladay (40.0) and CC Sabathia (39.5). His 129 ERA+ ranks fifth in that span (Halladay is first at 140), as does his 8.4 strikeouts per nine. He's taken a big step forward in his past two years, worth 8.4 and 7.7 WAR, respectively; his previous high was 5.6 in 2009.
(Note that all of these WAR values have risen slightly since my February piece, as Baseball-Reference.com has just lowered its replacement level to align with that of FanGraphs; the two measures are computed differently but are now on the same scale.)
Prior to the new deal, Verlander was in the midst of a five-year, $80 million contract signed in February 2010, a pact that looks somewhat antiquated by today's standards. Its $16 million average annual value ranked just 19th-highest among starting pitchers, tied with the freshly inked pact of teammate Anibal Sanchez, and recently surpassed by Adam Wainwright's five-year, $97.5 million deal. The list of less impressive pitchers with higher AAVs relative to Verlander's old deal includes John Lackey, A.J. Burnett, Josh Beckett, Barry Zito and Carlos Zambrano, not to mention Tim Lincecum, who struggled mightily in 2012.
With the extension -- which pays him a flat $28 million a year from 2015 through 2019 -- Verlander's total guaranteed package comes out to an average annual value of $25.7 million per year, higher than Hernandez's $25.0 million as well as Zack Greinke's $24.5 million. Those three deals, signed within four and a half months of each other, surpassed the previous standard-bearer, Sabathia, whose five-year extension from last winter comes in at $24.4 million per year.
The pact stands as another testament to Tigers owner Mike Ilich's commitment to spending on star talent. Last winter, the team signed Prince Fielder to a nine-year, $214 million deal to go along with Miguel Cabrera's eight-year, $152.3 million deal, which runs through 2015. The Tigers' 2012 opening day payroll of $132.3 million ranked fifth, and according to Cot's Contracts, they're positioned to rank fifth again at $143.1 million, though neither the dollars nor the ranking account for the pre-arbitration eligibility players making some function of the minimum salary.
As deserving as Verlander may be of a megadeal, his workload is a cause for concern. He has thrown 1553 1/3 innings total, with an average of 238 innings per year over the past four years. Since 1994, 29 pitchers (including Santana) have thrown at least 1,400 innings through their age-29 seasons. Thus far, only five have reached 1,000 innings from age 30 onward, and while the bulk of those pitchers are still active, only six have delivered at least 700 innings with an ERA+ of better than 110 so far (Santana fits neither of those categories). Which is to say: The odds of Verlander pitching to his current standard over the life of this new deal remain slim.
Even so, his won't be the last megadeal for an ace. Kershaw is the most likely candidate to surpass him as the game's highest-paid pitcher, but while he and the Dodgers are said to have discussed an extension, the pitcher doesn't want to negotiate once the season starts, which it does in just two days (three for the Dodgers). There's no real urgency to get a deal done, as he's under contract for $11 million this year as the second of a two-year, $19 million deal. But as he's still arbitration-eligible through the 2014 season, the average annual value of his total including that year take may fall short of Verlander's. If he and the Dodgers do agree to a longer deal, the total value could set a new standard, and the $28 million peak value of Verlander's deal gives his agents, Casey Close and J.D. Smart, another target to aim for as well. In other words, the arms race will continue. But for the moment, Verlander is in the lead.