Getting the Tigers a Real Prospect for Justin Verlander

It wasn’t a big surprise when Justin Verlander stayed in Detroit at the July 31st trade deadline, because for Verlander, the 31st wasn’t really a deadline. With $28 million salaries for each of the next two years, he wasn’t in much danger of being claimed on waivers; sure enough, he reportedly went unclaimed last week, and is again free to be traded to any team in baseball. And now that prospective buyers don’t have the distraction of other possible options, it might actually be easier for the Tigers to trade Verlander this month than it was in July.

Of course, easier doesn’t mean easy. As Jeff noted a month ago, there appears to be something of a gap between how the Tigers see Verlander and how the rest of the league sees him. Detroit seemingly is shopping him as if he’s still the ace he pitched like last season, not the average-ish starter he’s pitched like this season. And Jeff’s piece laid out why that isn’t a totally unreasonable position.

What the Tigers have is a prized asset, kind of. Verlander has as much name value as anyone, and it would be tough to top his track record. He’s bounced back from a major performance dip before, and so he’s proven that he can make the adjustments he has to make to continue. There’s no reason, right now, to worry that his stuff is declining. It’s just that, according to how 2017 Verlander has actually thrown, his stuff has declined, in that opposing hitters have been treating him worse. A team on the other side of a Verlander trade needs only to be thinking about what Verlander could and would provide. Ultimately, teams are all results-oriented, and Verlander doesn’t have the results. Not to take a chance on, given that Verlander’s salaries aren’t actually cheap.

In a way, this is reminiscent of the Pirates and Andrew McCutchen over the winter. The Pirates made the difficult decision to make McCutchen available. And there was interest, because McCutchen had the track record of being a star player. But McCutchen was also coming off a very disappointing season, which other teams cared about more than the Pirates did. The Pirates asked for the moon, valuing McCutchen as if he wasn’t possibly in decline. Other teams were hesitant to give up too much in the way of youth for a potential has-been. McCutchen never got traded, and now he’s bounced back at least some of the way. So he’s back on the trade block again.

Since Jeff wrote that post, noting that there was a disconnect between the stuff and the results, Verlander’s results have gotten a lot better; he’s put up a 2.31 ERA over six starts, running a 44/13 K/BB ratio in 39 innings during those outings. Now he’s a guy with good stuff whose most recent performances are more encouraging, and it’s a little easier to buy into the idea that he remains a frontline pitcher. But still, no one wanted to take the remainder of Verlander’s contract, and to work out a trade, Detroit is going to have to pay down some of the remaining money.

Despite reports to the contrary, Al Avila has stated that he has “no mandate to dump salary”, so the Tigers likely aren’t going to be looking at just paying down Verlander’s contract to receive a modest return. If they’re going to move one of the best players in franchise history, it’s likely going to have to bring them back a player they see as a legitimate part of their future, or at least a guy with a chance to turn into that. So, how much money would the Tigers have to keep on their books in order to get a good prospect in return?

Answering that question effectively requires two calculations. First, we have to figure out roughly what we think the market might value Verlander at, and then determine how much teams are paying for prospects. Let’s start with Verlander.

There aren’t many guys have hit free agency the last few years that would make easy stand-ins for Verlander’s market value. Rich Hill gives us an idea of what the Dodgers were willing to spend for an aging pitcher, but his health and performance records couldn’t be much different from Verlanders, so he doesn’t really fit. Ben Zobrist gives us an idea of what the market is for aging above-average players, but he was a hitter who got some value from his defensive versatility, so that’s not really the same thing either. James Shields kind of fits the mold as a durable guy with a good track record that looked like he was beginning his decline, but he was younger than Verlander is now and his deal was still a disaster for the Padres.

So there aren’t any obvious parallels to be found, but teams have paid roughly $15 million to $18 million per year for aging pitchers with various risk profiles, usually on three to four year contracts. It’s fair to say that the signing teams probably weren’t expecting a lot of value in the last years of those deals, so they were stretched out to just defer salary to some extent, and if they had just signed two year contracts instead, guys like Shields or Scott Kazmir would have gotten slightly higher AAVs.

Right now, Verlander projects as roughly a +3 WAR pitcher over a full season, so for the next two seasons, he’d expected to put up something like +2.5 and 2.0 WAR if you use a normal aging curve, or +2.3 and +1.6 if you want to be a bit more aggressive in pushing decline. So, roughly, Verlander would be selling +4 to +4.5 WAR as a free agent this winter. As Matt Swartz’s recent work shows, that would put him roughly around $40 million in value for the next two years. That matches up decently with a slight bump in AAV over what guys like Shields, Hill, and Kazmir got on the open market.

So let’s say Verlander would get something like 2/$40M this winter if constrained to only accepting a two year deal. Maybe it’s $35M, maybe it’s $45M, but I think something in that range is probably about right. Since he’s due $56 million over those years, you’d be looking at the Tigers eating about $16 million to get the contract down near market value, or about the point at which they could trade him for a minimal return.

But there’s also the remainder of his contract this year to consider. He’s due about $8 million through the rest of 2017, and while he’s pitched well of late, most teams don’t have $8 million left in their budgets this year. If the Tigers want to move him for a real return, they probably have to pick up a good chunk of that money too; guys who were traded without money to offset their current prices didn’t fetch much, so let’s round that $16 million up to $20 million just to help cover some of the in-season costs.

So that’s roughly what I’d guess Detroit would be on the hook for if the goal was to dump the contract. But as Avila said, that’s not the goal; they want talent in return. So how much would Detroit have to pick up in order to make Verlander attractive enough to bring back someone they could plan into their future?

Back in March, we posted an update to the prospect valuation methodology that Kevin Creagh and Steve DiMiceli have calculated over the last few years, which estimated the value of different levels of Top 100-ish prospects from somewhere between $10 and $70 million. Most of the guys traded during July were 45 FV or below types, which would translate to something like $5 to $10 million in value based on Creagh’s work. So if they just wanted a bit of a long-shot prospect, but someone who isn’t just an organizational player, that $20 million might have to go up to $25-$30 million.

If Detroit instead wanted to try to match the return they got for Justin Wilson and Alex Avila, where they got players Eric Longenhagen ranked as a 50 FV and a 45 FV prospect in return, then you’re looking at something closer to an additional $30 million or so, by this prospect valuation method at least. In other words, to get something like the Wilson/Avila return, this model would suggest that the Tigers would have to pay almost the entire freight on Verlander’s remaining contract, kicking in something like $50 million of the $64 million he’s still owed.

That isn’t likely to happen. While Justin Wilson is a very good reliever and Avila is a nice bench piece, I don’t think anyone would honestly suggest they had $50 million in value between them, so that trade may very well suggest that teams aren’t putting quite as high of values on these kinds of mid-range prospects as the model might suggest. If the Tigers paid Verlander all the way down to something like 2+/$14M, I’d bet they could do better than Candelario/Paredes.

More reasonably, I’d think maybe the Tigers would be willing to pay something like half of Verlander’s remaining contract, getting him down to 2+/$32M. At that price, he’d pretty clearly be under market value, especially when you consider his value to a team who could use him down the stretch, which disappears if they hold him until this winter. So if the Tigers were willing to pay half the freight, I’d think they could land a solid back-end Top 100 type and some filler, enough to legitimately say they didn’t just move Verlander in a salary dump to lower payroll at the expense of the team’s talent base.

So, while we’re mostly estimating and not dealing with exact precision here, I’d think something in the range of $30 million would be the number the Tigers would have to hit if they want to get a real return. Below that, it’s probably mostly a salary dump. If they want to really maximize their return, they could likely land even better prospects by picking up more of the deal, but we generally don’t see teams paying the entire freight for still productive players, so that seems unlikely. Instead, I’d think the sweet spot for a Verlander deal is probably somewhere around the Tigers splitting his long-term costs down the middle with his new team.

We hoped you liked reading Getting the Tigers a Real Prospect for Justin Verlander by Dave Cameron!

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Dave is the Managing Editor of FanGraphs.

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feslenraster
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feslenraster

They’d have to eat a lot of what’s left of the contract before getting a top prospect or ‘real’ guy back for Verlander.

CM52
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CM52

That’s literally what Dave just said.

Jason
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Member
Jason

comment first, read second huh?

wildginge
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wildginge

Site has gone to shit since they fired Cistulli. Can’t expect everybody to read the articles before commenting.

Jim
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Jim

When did that happen? Anyplace I can read about it?

sadtrombone
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sadtrombone

He’s on paternity leave last I heard.

Abomb1018
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Member
Abomb1018

I was under the impression that Carson is on paternity leave

Eminor3rd
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Eminor3rd

Maybe he was just posting a TL;DR?