Could Cubs Pursue Justin Verlander in Free Agency After Whiffing on 2017 Trade?

The Cubs had a chance to land Justin Verlander back in 2017 at the 11th hour of the waiver-trade deadline — remember that? — and were actually the righty’s preferred destination, but they “never got deep into” talks with the Tigers. A lot of people felt at the time that the former Cy Young and MVP winner was too far past his prime to make it worth taking on a big contract, something we now know was coloring the Cubs’ thoughts.

We also now know that thinking was a big mistake, as Verlander shoved for the Astros en route to a World Series win while the Cubs came up short in the NLCS. The veteran starter then finished second in AL Cy Young voting in 2018 and won the award for the second time in 2019 as a 36-year-old. His average fastball during those seasons was 95 mph, or about five ticks faster than a Cubs rotation Jed Hoyer recently trashed for not being good enough to compete.

Hoyer has said publicly that he regrets the decision to not pursue Verlander, which is pretty understandable given the results, and even said that mistake was the impetus for acquiring Cole Hamels the following season. That obviously didn’t work out as well as the Cubs would have liked, but could Hoyer end up chasing the dragon to satisfy both his non-buyer’s remorse and a need for power arms?

“There’s a really nice crop of starting pitchers on the market [names several], but I’m gonna hone in on one guy that didn’t throw a single pitch in 2021, and it’s Justin Verlander,” Sean Marshall said on Marquee Network when asked about offseason targets. “One of the most winning pitchers of our generation, this guy is one of the most competitive I’ve ever met.

“I think he’s gonna have plenty left in the tank coming off that Tommy John surgery, just enough to kind of bring that winning vibe, that winning culture, back here to the North Side.”

While Marshall isn’t necessarily wrong here, there are a lot of red flags and obstacles when it comes to bringing the 39-year-old to a team Hoyer says is planning to rebuild quickly. The first sticking point is more a matter of recency bias after Jake Arrieta was signed as a once-elite veteran righty who said he had gas in the tank after an injury-plagued season. The idea was to have a mentor who could bring some of that winning culture back, but ego and poor performance quickly put the kibosh on that notion.

Beyond disparate philosophical and physical similarities, Verlander’s age and health are concerns. He pitched only six innings in 2020 and missed all of this season following elbow reconstruction, not really what you want to see from a guy his age. And while it’s true Verlander has put very little mileage on his arm over the last two years, that’s not the same as cranking the odometer back. Besides, Father Time’s car is faster either way.

Money could also be an obstacle, especially since Verlander is reportedly seeking a deal “of some length” as he looks to pitch well into his 40’s. Chandler Rome of the Houston Chronicle wrote that the Astros are leaning toward extending a qualifying offer to Verlander, which could further complicate things for other potential suitors.

Turning down $19 million would mean Verlander is indeed looking for more money and years, which in and of itself might not be radioactive to a Cubs team that can easily afford to pay higher AAV over a short period. In other words, they much prefer girth to length. The big issue, assuming current rules are either still in place or are grandfathered into the new CBA, is that a QO could mean forfeiting draft picks. That’s likely a non-starter.

But of all these things, the biggest reason Verlander probably won’t end up with the Cubs is because he doesn’t want to. This ain’t 2017 and we’re not talking about moving from a moribund Detroit team to a World Series contender. So unless he and Kate Upton still want to live in Chicago so badly that winning isn’t an immediate priority, Verlander is going to look for a softer landing spot among a group of several teams sure to be interested in his services.

It’s certainly possible given the depth of the pitching market and the way the Cubs’ needs match up with Verlander’s skills that something could still pan out. Maybe a two-year deal with an option and performance incentives that can be reached easily would make sense for both sides. And maybe Hoyer can sell Verlander on the idea of a very quick rebuild a la the Jon Lester coup. That’s just a lot of maybes against a lot more tangible obstacles.

What say you, readers, do you want the Cubs to pursue Verlander in free agency at all, or are there certain parameters under which you’d be okay with it? We’ve got all kinds of time to discuss.

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