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Justin Verlander potential team fits as free agent

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With the 2022 season behind us and the Hot Stove ready to burn, we’re taking a close look at some of the most prominent players eligible for free agency.

Name: Justin Verlander
Position: Right-handed pitcher
Team: Houston Astros
Age (as of Opening Day 2023): 40
2022 stats: 18-4, 1.75 ERA, 175 IP, 185 K, 0.829 WHIP, 220 ERA+

One year ago, Justin Verlander hit the open market with an enormous question mark hovering over his free agency: after making just one start since the beginning of 2020 and undergoing Tommy John surgery, what would the two-time American League Cy Young Award winner look like at the age of 39?

Verlander signed a one-year, $25 million deal with the Astros, a contract that included a $25 million player option for 2023 if he pitched at least 130 innings. The right-hander breezed by that mark, but his incredible season led him to decline the option, giving him an opportunity to test the market once again.

In terms of talent, Verlander is arguably the best starting pitcher on the free-agent market. But he’ll turn 40 in February, an age when most pitchers are looking at a decline and/or retirement. Then again, Verlander might be baseball’s answer to Tom Brady, who won an MVP award at the age of 40 and Super Bowl rings at 41 and 43.

What will Verlander’s contract look like? Which teams will be in the mix to add the AL’s reigning Cy Young winner? Let’s take a look.

Verlander has been a perfect fit with the Astros since he arrived in September 2017, helping Houston to a pair of World Series titles and another American League pennant. He’s 61-19 with a 2.26 ERA in 102 starts for the Astros, but after opting out of his $25 million contract for 2023, the three-time AL Cy Young winner might price himself out of Houston’s market. The Astros have plenty of pitching, so it remains to be seen whether owner Jim Crane — who is quite fond of Verlander — will pay the price to assure he retires in Houston.

The Mets have their own ace on the free-agent market in Jacob deGrom, who is no sure bet to return to New York. Should deGrom leave, Verlander would be a shorter-term replacement for the two-time National League Cy Young winner, potentially pairing him with former Detroit teammate Max Scherzer. Of course, that would mean paying roughly $85 million per year for 38- and 40-year-old starters.

No team will be attached to more free-agent pitchers this offseason than Texas, which made a big splash last winter with the signings of Corey Seager and Marcus Semien for a combined $500 million. The Rangers are said to be in pursuit of a bona fide ace such as Verlander, though Texas has also been attached to pitchers including deGrom, Kodai Senga and Carlos Rodón.

The Yankees made a bid for Verlander last offseason before he ultimately re-upped with the Astros. New York figures to spend most of its time — and potentially its money — to bring Aaron Judge back to the Bronx, but if the AL MVP leaves town, the Yankees could pivot to a high-priced ace such as Verlander, pairing him with former Astros rotation-mate Gerrit Cole.

The Dodgers have rotation issues to address this offseason, as Walker Buehler is expected to miss most (if not all) of 2023 following Tommy John surgery. Tyler Anderson has already bolted for the Angels, while Andrew Heaney is also a free agent. A short-term, high-AAV contract might be appealing to Los Angeles.

Toronto made a strong bid for Verlander last offseason, and while the Blue Jays watched the pitcher re-sign with the Astros, it won’t be a shock to see the Jays take another run at him this winter. The Blue Jays won 92 games in 2022 with a top-heavy rotation that ranked eighth in the AL with a 3.98 ERA, so adding another frontline starter would help Toronto chase down its first AL East title since 2015.

It’s difficult to argue with much of what we saw from Verlander in 2022, when he led the AL in ERA, wins, winning percentage, WHIP, ERA+ and hits per nine innings. If there’s anything for potential suitors to be wary about, it’s that only one pitcher in the Modern Era has ever posted an ERA below 3.00 in his 40s (minimum 400 innings): Roger Clemens, who had a 2.99 ERA in 849 2/3 innings between the ages of 40-44.

It’s nearly impossible to find a good comparison for Verlander after his stellar age-39 season, but contractually, the three-year, $130 million deal Scherzer signed with the Mets last winter seems like a good place to start. Scherzer had gone 49-22 with a 2.74 ERA in 102 starts (639 2/3 innings) from 2018-21 before inking that deal, while Verlander is 56-19 with a 2.33 ERA over 97 starts since the start of ’18, making just one start between 2020-21 due to injury). Scherzer was entering his age-37 season when he signed his deal, while Verlander turns 40 in February, so it will be interesting to see whether he can land a three-year pact.

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