Longtime Tigers ace Justin Verlander has been mentioned as a potential trade acquisition for a while, but Jon Morosi provided a little credence to Cubs potential pursuit of the veteran righty.
— Jon Morosi (@jonmorosi) July 4, 2017
Known for his killer hook and heavy fastball, the Tigers shelled out $180 million over seven years to lock Verlander up back in 2013. If the Cubs were to acquire the hard-throwing righty, Theo and Co. would owe the former Cy Young winner roughly $14 million for the duration of this season and $28 million in each of the next two seasons, for a grand total of ~$70 million.
Now 34 years old, Verlander hasn’t exactly blown batters away this season. In 98 innings, he has pitched to an underwhelming 4.96 ERA, 4.36 FIP, and 5.02 xFIP. The disappointing play comes off of in an aggregate 3.49 FIP over 361 innings in the last two seasons.
While I don’t imagine he is the primary target for the front office, he surely is a target full of pros and cons. So does this make sense for the Cubs?
When you think of aging pitchers, you probably think of reduced velocity. At some point in even the most illustrious pitcher’s career, velocity will naturally begin to tail off. To this point in Verlander’s career, however, there aren’t significant signs of a velocity dip. Instead, he’s actually throwing harder in 2017, though that bump could be a byproduct of Trackman overtaking PitchFX technology.
Even so, he’s not showing signs of extreme velocity loss. And Verlander hasn’t changed his repertoire much over the more recent years.
Further, Verlander’s HR/FB rate is in line with his career norm even though his ERA has ballooned. Only 9.7 percent of the fly balls hit against him have left the yard this year, down from his 10.9 percent rate last year and below the 10.5 percent average MLB mark. Whereas John Lackey is giving up a homer roughly every other second, at least Verlander isn’t having the same problem.
While Verlander’s strong velocity is encouraging, some of his stuff might actually be losing its luster. Batters whiffed against him at an above-average 24.2 percent rate in 2016 and a borderline average rate of 20.4 percent in 2015. This year, however, batters have only whiffed against 19.5 percent of his pitches, resulting in a 20 percent net increase in contact allowed by the righty.
Perhaps the increase in contact is due to a decrease in slider movement. He has lost nearly a full inch of movement on the slide-piece as compared to last season. This decrease in cutting action is a very likely culprit in a 22 percent dip in slider whiffs.
Trading for Verlander probably means the Cubs believe his slider would come back.
If Verlander takes the bump in royal blue pinstripes once every five days for the next 2.5 seasons, he’ll have to produce roughly 8-9 total WAR for $70M or so he’ll earn. Plus, the Cubs are going to have to give up additional value in the form of prospects. All of this means Verlander will likely have to be a 3.50-3.75 FIP pitcher with ~200 innings each season. That’s a tall task for a pitcher approaching 35.
But maybe the Cubs are okay with getting value that is somewhat less than that of pitchers who are paid similarly. After all, Verlander would fit into a rotation spot that has currently spit out negative value, and both Lackey and Jake Arrieta are off the books this upcoming offseason.
So I ask again: Does this make sense? There’s a big risk involved and younger, lower-cost options out there. But those younger options come with maybe an overall price tag loftier than even Verlander’s contract. If the Cubs do indeed go after Verlander, it means the market for young pitching is just too high at the moment. While I’ll join what I assume to be the majority of you in feeling uncomfortable with acquiring Verlander, I can see why the Cubs would target the Detroit ace.