LAKELAND, Fla. — If the Detroit Tigers want to sign superstar right-hander Justin Verlander to a multiyear extension, they had better hustle.
Verlander said Saturday that if there’s no deal in place by his next start, his last spring start, there won’t be any more contract talk through the remainder of the season, as he wants to focus on winning. So if there isn’t a new contract done in 3 1/2 days — his last spring start is Wednesday — the Tigers will have only one calendar year to sign him.
That could get dicey, as major stars don’t often sign long deals with a year to go before free agency, though a few do, most recently David Wright of the Mets.
“Once this last start comes around, I want to concentrate on the start of the season,” Verlander said about his decision to halt any negotiations as of Wednesday. (The Tigers are aware of this stance, and seem to concur it’s the proper way to go.)
Meantime, there hasn’t been any evidence there’s anything serious afoot in terms of the negotiations, and while the Tigers are notorious secret keepers, they’d have to be about the best poker players ever if they were getting close to a deal at the deadline without even a hint of progress surfacing.
Tigers general manager Dave Dombrowski made clear he likes to “keep things behind closed doors,” and Verlander didn’t want to discuss current talks, either. “Not really,” he answered when asked if anything was going on, perhaps offering a slight hint. “There’s nothing to talk about.”
Referring to Verlander’s current deal, which runs through 2014, Dombrowski stressed that there’s still time (although it’ll narrow if there’s nothing done by Wednesday).
“First of all, Justin is still with us two more years,” Dombrowski said. “And as I’ve said, we want Justin to remain a Tiger for a long time.”
Verlander has been the most productive and successful starting pitcher in the big leagues over the past four seasons, and while it appeared the Felix Hernandez negotiations, which ended with Hernandez turning his $39 million, two-year commitment into a $175 million, five-year deal, looked like they could potentially become a blueprint for a Verlander deal, negotiations often taken on a life of their own.
Although Verlander, who has $40 million and two years left on his $80 million, five-year deal, has accomplished more than Hernandez, and inarguably would warrant a slightly higher average annual value, it probably isn’t a leap to wonder whether the contract length could be the issue. Verlander, who just turned 30, is a few years older than King Felix, though Verlander hasn’t had one hint of an arm issue.
Things have worked out beautifully so far for Verlander in Detroit, but there are friends who suggest free agency might also appeal to him. (Why wouldn’t it? Teams would be lining up.) In an interview with Tom Gage of the Detroit News early in spring, Verlander used the word “intriguing” regarding the prospect of free agency.
“I do like it here in Detroit. (But) I’m my own individual,” Verlander said. “I’m not Felix. I’m not anybody else. It’ll be whatever I feel comfortable with.”
In terms of his pitching, expect more of the same from Verlander, who’s averaged a baseball-high 238 innings over the last four years, while leading the league in innings and strikeouts three times, wins twice and ERA once. He was 24-5 with a 2.40 ERA and 250 striikeouts in 2011 when he won both the Cy Young award and MVP.
Then he “slipped” to a second-place finish in the Cy Young to the Rays’ David Price in 2012.
“I guess the goal is to get back to No. 1,” Verlander joked before changing gears. “No, the goal is winning the World Series. Hopefully, I can do my part.”
Along those lines, the Tigers should be favored to get back to the World Series. To their American League champion team, they added Torii Hunter. They also get Victor Martinez back from a knee injury, and will have a full year from Anibal Sanchez.
“This team is built to win a World Series,” Verlander said. “Now we’ve just got to go do it.”
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