Detroit — Make no mistake, Drew VerHagen is living his best life right now.
VerHagen, who has pitched in parts of the last six seasons for the Tigers, is taking his mid-90s fastballs and Bugs Bunny curveball east — Far East. The 29-year-old right-hander signed a one-year deal with the Hokkaido Nippon-Ham Fighters of Japan’s Nippon Professional Baseball League.
“It sounds like they are going to give me a great opportunity to start,” VerHagen said from Cancun, Mexico, where he is vacationing. “I just felt like this is something cool and different and it will be big financially, as well.
VerHagen, who pitched his way back into the Tigers’ plans after being designated for assignment in both 2018 and 2019, was eligible for arbitration this offseason and, according to projections made by MLBTradeRumors.com, could have been awarded as much as $900,000 if he and the Tigers went to arbitration.
Of course, it’s also possible, since he twice cleared waivers after being DFA’d, that the Tigers would’ve non-tendered him.
“That was part of the discussion, too,” VerHagen said. “Considering all the things that have happened, I knew there was a possibility of them non-tendering me. Even though everybody was telling me that based on how I pitched last season, they were sure I’d have a spot.
“But I knew my spot in Detroit was far from set. And I figured if I got an opportunity as good as this one, I should jump on it.”
The Tigers drafted VerHagen out of Vanderbilt in the fourth round back in 2012. He made his big-league debut in 2014, with a encouraging, five-inning spot start. He battled an assortment of injuries and was toggled between starter and reliever over the next five seasons.
But he seemed to find his stride after a rough April. He made four official starts, but he worked in a starter's routine, making tandem starts with left-hander Daniel Norris, who was on an innings restriction for the final month and a half. Norris would start, pitch three innings and give way to VerHagen, who would pitch between four and six innings.
VerHagen allowed two runs or less in seven of his last 10 appearances.
“Getting a chance to start is something that I really wanted,” he said. “From everything I’ve been told, (Nippon) is going to give me that chance. Starters only pitch one day a week over there, so hopefully I can build up strength and really have a good year.
“I am truly grateful for all the opportunities the Tigers have given me over the last eight years.”
Tigers buy a starter
In a move tangential to VerHagen’s outright release, the Tigers purchased the contract of Panamanian right-hander Dario Agrazal from the Pittsburgh Pirates. Agrazal, who turns 25 on Dec. 28 and has one minor-league option left, made 14 starts for the Pirates last season.
He’s a sinker (91 mph), slider (83 mph) pitcher who through the minor leagues got a lot of groundball outs. He was hit a little harder at the big-league level — 4.91 ERA, 1.36 WHIP, .283 opponent average, .841 OPS with 15 home runs allowed in 73.1 innings.
But he still had five quality starts, including his last start of the year when he beat the Cubs allowing two runs with five strikeouts over six innings.
The Pirates had designated him for assignment last week to clear room on their 40-man roster to protect prospects from the Rule 5 draft.
With the two moves Monday, the Tigers 40-man roster count is at 39.