Should the Chicago Cubs Bite On Justin Verlander?

Rewind back to five years ago, and news that the Cubs were pursuing Detroit Tigers ace Justin Verlander would have sent the Windy City into a frenzy.

Fresh off an American League Cy Young Award winning season (2011) where he led the AL in ERA (2.40), wins (24), innings pitched (251.0), strikeouts (250), and WHIP (.920), Verlander was 29 years old in 2012 and on his way to two more All-Star appearances and a runner-up finish in the AL Cy Young voting in 2016.

However, the Cubs were in rebuild mode during the waning years of Verlander’s prime, and it didn’t make sense for the club to forfeit the farm system to pry the right-handed ace away from the Tigers.

Fast forward to the present, and you’ll find a Cubs team that could use quality pitchers to fortify a starting rotation that has underwhelmed for the majority of the season. In preparation for a possible pre-trade deadline move, the Cubs have done their due diligence on pitchers around the league including Verlander.

FanRags Sports writer Jon Heyman reports that three or four other teams have expressed interest in Verlander. However, as expected, any team interested in acquiring his services will have to empty the asset treasure trove for Detroit to take them seriously as trade partners.

Verlander also has a no-trade clause in his current contract meaning he could veto any trade if he wants to remain with the Tigers.

In 17 games this season, Verlander has posted a 4.96 ERA and a 5–5 record. At age 34, he has three years remaining on his current contract including a $22 million vesting option in 2020 (the last year of his contract) that takes effect if he finishes in the top five in AL Cy Young voting in 2019. Boston Globe writer Nick Cafardo reports that the Tigers would be willing to absorb some of the money remaining on his contract if the right deal comes along ($28 million in 2018 and 2019). He is owed an approximate $13.6 million for the rest of this season.

Should the Cubs pull the trigger and try to acquire Verlander prior to the deadline or should they take a hard pass and let other teams gamble on the past-his-prime ace?

The Case For Acquiring Justin Verlander

The Cubs need starting pitching help if they plan on making another serious run at a World Series title.

The starting rotation has posted a mediocre 4.52 ERA this season which is 15th best in MLB. Jon Lester, Jake Arrieta, and Kyle Hendricks have seen sharp rises in their ERAs compared to a season ago, while John Lackey looks increasingly incapable of even being a replacement level starter. The recent emergence of Mike Montgomery has been a nice surprise and Eddie Butler has been serviceable, but the Cubs still need an upgrade if they want to seriously contend for a World Series title.

Even as he’s aged, Verlander has pitched at his peak form as recently as last season. In 2016, he posted a 3.04 ERA, led the AL in strikeouts and WHIP, and finished second in AL Cy Young voting. Although his numbers are ugly this season, he hasn’t lost any velocity on his fastball (95.5 mph average on both his fourseam and his sinker), which bodes well for continued success as he gets older.

Verlander is also a seasoned playoff veteran which is another appealing characteristic for a team with World Series aspirations. He has a 3.39 ERA and a 7–5 record across 16 postseason starts. He’s also started games in two World Series, although the 0–3 record and 7.20 ERA he posted in these games wasn’t pretty.

Counting on Verlander to regain his 2016 form is a risky proposition; however, the Cubs are borderline desperate for starting pitching help at this point and taking a flyer on Verlander could help snap this team out of its perpetual middling pattern.

The Case For Avoiding Justin Verlander

The numbers speak for themselves. A pitcher with a 4.96 ERA and a .500 record doesn’t scream season savior. Per MLB Trade Rumors writer Jeff Todd.

Of course, Verlander himself hasn’t exactly been pitching like an ace through the first half of the season. The Cubs sent a scout to watch his most recent outing, which represented a new low (no strikeouts, seven earned runs in 3 1/3 innings) for the longtime ace. Through 98 frames on the year, Verlander now carries a 4.96 ERA with 8.4 K/9 and 4.3 BB/9.
Never has Verlander allowed so many walks over a full season. And his swinging-strike rate (9.1%) and strikeout rate (8.4 K/9) are both down after a bounceback 2016 campaign.

The fact that Verlander is 34 years old and has 2,437 career innings on his arm adds a layer of spoiled icing onto this already rotting cake. Most pitchers peak around the age of 26, then it’s downhill from there.

Furthermore, acquiring Verlander is a multiple year commitment. He has two guaranteed years (worth $28 million each) remaining on his current contract. Absorbing this money into the payroll creates serious limitations on how much the Cubs can spend elsewhere. Plus, committing around $56 million (the Tigers will probably eat a chunk of the contract as previously stated) to a 34-year-old pitcher who will be 36 during the final guaranteed year of his contract is problematic. He has done nothing this season to inspire confidence that he can live up to the expectations that this large contract would warrant.

The Tigers want a “big, big, big” return in exchange for Verlander which isn’t ideal given his contract situation, age, and statistics this season. The Cubs would likely have to strip their farm system to get their paws on the right hander, which would probably mean parting ways with some combination of Eloy Jimenez, Jeimer Candelario, Dylan Cease, and/or Victor Caratini. If the Tigers want MLB players, Kyle Schwarber, Javier Baez, and/or Ian Happ may have to leave town. This is a stiff price to pay for a pitcher with all these red flags.

Sacrificing the building blocks of the future on a 34-year-old, past his prime pitcher seems unnecessarily reckless. Unless the Tigers lower the asking price and sweeten the deal by eating a significant portion of Verlander’s contract, the Cubs should look elsewhere for starting pitching reinforcements.

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