Mets Lose Jacob deGrom, Sign Next-Best Thing: Justin Verlander by Michael Baumann December 5, 2022 Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports Just three days ago, there was gnashing of teeth and rending of garments in the blue-and-orange tinted sectors of the New York metropolitan area. Jacob deGrom, light of the world, oppressor of batters, had taken the money and run to Texas. This was a black eye for the conspicuously moneyed regime of hedge fund billionaire Steve Cohen, who’d promised to do for the Mets what Gulf state sovereign wealth funds are doing for European soccer teams. Instead, he’d been outbid for the best pitcher in baseball, a homegrown superstar the likes of which the Mets hadn’t produced since… is it sacrilegious to say Tom Seaver? Fear not, because the Mets have secured a hell of a fallback option. On Sunday night, former Met Carlos Baerga announced on Instagram — because sure, why not? “Carlos Baerga’s Instagram” is my favorite Bo Burnham song — that Justin Verlander was signing with the Mets for two years and $86.8 million, with a mutual option for a third year. On Monday morning, ESPN’s leading scoop man, Jeff Passan, reported substantially similar news: Verlander to New York for two years and $86 million, with a vesting option for 2025. Depending on how you feel about Carlos Rodón, there are either two or three legitimate difference-making no. 1 starters in this year’s free-agent class. (And even a Rodón superfan such as myself will acknowledge that deGrom and Verlander are a step above.) The Mets lost one but gained another. This signing represents a delightful reunion of former teammates Verlander and Max Scherzer, one that will no doubt lead to numerous shots of the two talking shop in the dugout as onlookers wonder what these great pitching minds could be discussing. It also allows the Mets to retain a 1–2 punch at the top of the rotation that ought to give them a significant advantage against most playoff opponents. And even with Verlander’s advanced age, there’s a compelling argument that it’s better to give him $43 million a year for two years than give the more injury-prone deGrom $37 million over five. Now, the eternal question: How far does $86 million worth of Verlander get you in this day and age? Well, the man will be 40 years old in February; at that age, most pitchers are not only cooked, but they’ve also sat in the fridge for a while and been repurposed as part of a leftover parfait. Verlander, obviously, is not most pitchers. That year or so when maybe the miles were starting to pile up and people were putting him on “worst contract in baseball” lists? That was back in 2014–15, or about as far in the past as his MLB debut was when he was supposed to be cooked. What’s happened since then? Well, Verlander went from a borderline Hall of Fame case to a slam-dunk first-ballot guy. Since 2016, a seven-year span that includes (essentially) two seasons lost to Tommy John surgery, he has won two Cy Young Awards, finished an extremely close second twice, won two World Series (including his winning a World Series start for the first time in his career), pitched more than 1,000 innings, recorded a 300-strikeout season, passed the 3,000-strikeout threshold, et cetera, et cetera, and so forth. For most of the past 15 years, Verlander, when healthy, has been whatever a no. 1 starter looked like by the standards of the time. When that meant striking out a batter an inning for 250 innings a year, that’s what he did. When that meant striking out 12 batters per nine innings for 200 innings a year, cutting walks to nil and allowing almost no runs but solo homers, that’s what Verlander did. In 2022, his first full season since the pandemic, he maintained his fastball velocity and exceptionally low walk rate, trading a reduction in strikeout rate (35.4% in 2019 to 27.8% in 2022) for a two-thirds reduction in home runs (his HR/9 dropped from 1.45 to 0.62 and his HR/FB rate dropped from 16% to 6.2%.) The results? Well, he won the Cy Young, so that seems pretty good. It’s fair to ask whether Verlander can continue to be literally among the best pitchers in baseball into his 40s. And that will be the expectation, given the girth of the bag he secured, to say nothing of the hysterical environment created by Cohen, the fishbowl effect of the media capital of North America, and a fan base that doesn’t take much provocation to act like it’s living out the Book of Job. It’s also worth considering that the Astros are letting Verlander walk after a postseason in which he was roundly outpitched by both Framber Valdez and Cristian Javier. But a two-year contract with a vesting option isn’t a long commitment, and while it’s reasonable to expect Verlander to decline over that time, it’d be a genuine shock if the quality of his work fell off a cliff. Let’s put it this way: All things being equal, I’d rather have deGrom than Verlander. The upside of deGrom is that when he’s healthy, he’s the best pitcher in baseball by some margin, the kind of unhittable mutant who can only be comped to turn-of-the-century Pedro Martinez or prime Sandy Koufax. The downside of deGrom is he’s hurt and doesn’t pitch at all. The upside for Verlander is that he’s among the best pitchers in the league; the downside is he’s a no. 2 or (if he comes over all AARP-y in year two of the deal) no. 3 starter. Apart from the abdominal injury that dogged him in 2014 and the Tommy John sabbatical, he has been uncommonly healthy throughout his career and seems as likely as any pitcher to remain so. And when he’s been healthy, he’s usually been in the Cy Young conversation. Factoring their contracts into the equation, Verlander can give the Mets most of what they’ll miss about deGrom, and his shorter contract and better injury track record make him a much safer option. That’s the nice thing about having an owner who treats the competitive balance tax the same way he treats federal regulations against insider trading: the Mets can pay more up front in order to avoid the riskiest part of most free-agent contracts. Verlander gets to cash in for another huge payday and chase another ring, and the Mets not only fill the deGrom-shaped void in their rotation but also do so on a deal that makes financial sense. Unless you’re the Astros or an NL East competitor, there’s nothing not to like.