February 26, 2013 at 11:34 am

Kurt Mensching

Signing Justin Verlander to new deal should be done sooner rather than later

Tigers ace Justin Verlander could be seeking a $200 million contract, though he has two seasons remaining on his current deal. (Robin Buckson/Detroit News)

Justin Verlander would like to spend his entire career in Detroit, and Tigers fans would love to see that happen.

If only it were that simple.

Verlander has said he'd like to be paid $200 million — a figure that would make him the highest paid pitcher yet also a possible financial burden on his club.

After Seattle Mariners starter Felix Hernandez signed a deal worth $175 million, it was easy to predict a nice round number like "200" would interest Verlander.

He is, after all, a rather competitive individual no matter what he does. Golf. Baseball. Cars. Salary. That kind of drive makes him so valuable to the Tigers in the first place.

It wouldn't be the first time Verlander one-upped Hernandez: In 2010, Verlander signed an $80 million deal just two weeks after Hernandez inked a $78 million contract.

If he thinks he's the best, why would Verlander accept being paid anything less than he deserves?

Make no mistake. Verlander is most certainly among the best pitchers in baseball over the past few years, and he has the hardware to show for it.

He's also a player who has already turned 30 and will be 32 after he finishes his current contract.

Paying him $25 million, $30 million, maybe more, makes sense today, but will it still make sense when he's a 38- or 39-year-old?

Verlander vs. Hernandez

That is the essential difference between Hernandez and Verlander.

Hernandez, a member of that elusive "perfect" club, will turn 27 in April.

At every age, Hernandez has posted a better ERA than Verlander — more than a run better at most ages, actually.

His Fielding Independent Pitching (FIP) figures have been better all but the age 26 season. In that, the two were virtually identical.

Although Verlander has been the better player during the past few years, the bigger picture shows Hernandez likely will provide his team with better performance over the entire life of the contract.

So if he's not worth $200 million, Verlander certainly isn't either.

Odds are, Verlander is going to get it anyway.

A look at the numbers

There are two ways to look at what Verlander provides. You can put estimated value to both.

As an elite-level player, Verlander brings star power to his team. Along with Miguel Cabrera and Prince Fielder, he helps turn fans out of people who otherwise might not root for the Tigers.

In 2012, Verlander's 15 starts at Comerica Park averaged 38,277 fans. That's about 1,000 more than in the 66 games he did not start.

Verlander's jersey was the ninth best-selling in baseball in 2012, and the best-selling of any Tigers.

That's worth something, certainly, though it's hard to see an economic argument for paying Verlander better than any other pitcher.

The better argument might rely on Wins Above Replacement. Over the past three years, Verlander has been worth an average 6.7 WAR by formulas used at Baseball-Reference.com and Fangraphs.com.

Based on what teams are willing to pay on the free-agent market, Fangraphs estimated Verlander's contribution in dollar terms to be about $31 million.

However, studies have found the peak for pitchers come at around the age 27-29 seasons — in other words, where Hernandez is now and where Verlander already has passed.

It's reasonable to expect a fastball-throwing pitcher like Verlander to work his way along the wrong side of the aging curve. He'll still be great, but probably not as good as he has been.

Still, with inflation in baseball even higher than it is in the economy, much of Verlander's aging curve likely will be made up for in what teams are willing to pay for each unit of WAR.

In the end the best thing for both the Tigers and for their star pitcher would be to hammer out a deal that begins sooner than later.

The longer Verlander waits, the more likely he is to lose some of the shine from his star or have his body betray him. The longer the Tigers wait, the more likely they will be to get stuck with an old pitcher paid much higher than his level of contribution.

Negotiating a deal similar to Hernandez's that replaces the '13 and '14 years while guaranteeing a large sum of money would be the best way to go for both.

And it might just be the best chance at keeping Verlander in Detroit his entire career.

Kurt Mensching is the editor of Bless You Boys, a Tigers blog (blessyouboys.com). He can be reached at bybtigers@gmail.com.

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