Less than four days after watching Jacob deGrom sign with the Texas Rangers, the Mets replaced him with Justin Verlander, signing the future hall-of-famer to a two year, $86.6M deal with a vesting option for 2024. It was a quick and decisive response, giving the Mets a second near-geriatric ace to pair with Max Scherzer at the top of the rotation and kicking off the offseason for the team in earnest.
Verlander needs little introduction. Arguably the greatest pitcher of his generation (he’s probably a step behind Max Scherzer and Clayton Kershaw, but it’s a defensible position), he’s pitched to a career 3.24 ERA and amassed 78.1 fWAR over 3163 career innings since debuting in 2005. In that time he’s won three AL Cy Youngs and an AL MVP, been named Rookie of the Year, won two World Series (one with an asterisk), and generally been one of the most dependable starters in baseball. Since 2007, Verlander has only failed to eclipse 200 innings three times; in 2015, when he dealt with some nagging issues during what many feared would be the start of his decline in Detroit; in 2021, while recovering from Tommy John surgery; and in 2022, where the Astros monitored his workload a bit as he came back from an essentially two-year layoff. No matter, he tossed 175 innings of 1.75 ERA ball and won the Cy Young unanimously as a 39-year-old, ho-hum.
Verlander absolutely earned that unanimous Cy Young too. The ERA is pristine and is supported by a 2.66 FIP and a 69 DRA-. He can’t touch triple digits or even 99 anymore, but his average fastball velocity remains unchanged from his early and mid 30s, as Tommy John has had seemingly no ill-effect on his stuff. A .240 BABIP and 6.2% HR/FB rate are perhaps a bit lucky - particularly in Minute Maid Park - yet Statcast data shows that Verlander is among the best in the league at limiting hard contact and average exit velocity. In short, there are very few nits to pick.
The Mets kept things simple here, essentially photocopying the first two years of Max Scherzer’s contract and slapping on a $35M option that vests if Verlander throws 140 innings in 2024. That’s a lot of money, no way about it, but it simultaneously adds the best free agent pitcher on the market and keeps the Mets’ long term cap sheet relatively clean. At this phase of the Cohen regime, the Mets are still playing catchup in terms of drafting, development, and major league analytics, meaning that they have to spend big rather than betting on internal options and reclamation projects to fill out the roster (see Andrew Heaney and Tyler Anderson with the Dodgers, among others). Given those limitations, adding a top-of-the-rotation arm on this sort of deal makes perfect sense.
Note that in the last paragraph I labeled Verlander, not Jacob deGrom as the best pitcher on the market, a stance that may strike some as controversial. However, Verlander was better than deGrom on a per-inning basis while throwing three times as many innings. Despite being more than five years older, everything in Verlander’s record suggests he’s a more reliable bet to actually make it on the field than deGrom at this point and that while there is at worst only a slight downgrade. This is to say nothing of the disparity in contract size and length between the two pitchers. While it undeniably stings from a fan’s perspective to lose a franchise star, there is no question that the Mets made the better baseball move bringing in Verlander.
The only other potential critique of this deal is the high AAV. Last season, it seemed that the Mets were not willing to surpass the “Steve Cohen” luxury tax, and the back-end of the roster suffered for it. This made the choice to prioritize Max Scherzer over Kevin Gausman at least somewhat questionable. A similar choice existed again this year, with a younger but perhaps not as good pitcher in Carlos Rodon available for significantly less in AAV. However, it seems like the budget really isn’t a concern for the Mets this year, as they’re poised to blow past $300M in total payroll with a good bit of work left to do on the roster. Moreover, Rodon’s extensive injury history is a real cause for concern, making him a riskier proposition than Gausman was as an alternative last offseason. Given that the high AAV isn’t an impediment to adequately filling out the rest of the roster and the alternative isn’t as clean a fit, the penalty applied to the grade on the Scherzer signing last year will not apply this time around.
In sum, the Mets added an elite - though very old - pitcher on a short deal that won’t harm them long term if things go south. It was an addition that needed to be made, both given the immediate needs of the roster and the realities of the organization’s depth and expertise at present. It also seems like this move won’t prevent the Mets from adequately addressing the bullpen and bench as they failed to do last offseason. Given the lack of clear flaws with this move and it’s potentially huge impact on the roster, the Verlander signing gets an A+.