March 2013

The $22 million Cy Young clause

The Tigers have had some interesting contract clauses in their big deals under Dave Dombrowski. When they crashed the market and spent big on Ivan Rodriguez in 2004, they protected themselves with a contract clause that allowed them to terminate the deal in either of the first two years if he spent more than five weeks on the disabled list with a lumbar injury. A year later, they put a similar clause into Magglio Ordonez’s massive deal, allowing them a way out after only one season if he spent more than 25 days on the disabled list due to issues with his surgically-repaired knee. That was the peace of mind they bought while they were taking chances on free agents with injury histories, though they weren’t protected when Troy Percival’s arm broke down in 2005 (granted, it was a two-year contract).

Justin Verlander’s new contract has a different type of clause, and it has the potential to put awards balloting in a different spotlight.

The way the contract is written, Verlander clearly wanted the chance to become the first pitcher with a $200 million contract, but the Tigers probably didn’t want to be on the hook for what the Mets and Phillies face with Johan Santana and Roy Halladay, paying massive money for a pitcher beginning the downslide of his career (in fairness, we don’t know for sure if Halladay is sliding quite that far just yet, but he’s making $20 million regardless and just had a miserable Spring Training).

The solution isn’t injury-based, and is indirectly performance-based. It’s awards-based. If Verlander finishes among the top five in AL Cy Young balloting in 2019, his $22 million option for 2020 will vest.

The way they were talking at Friday’s press conference, Verlander and the Tigers are treating it as a performance-based incentive.

“I have a chance to get to the $200 million contract. I just have to earn it,” Verlander said. “I have no problem with that. The opportunity to stay in Detroit and earn $200 million is great. Obviously, it’d be nice if it was guaranteed, but I’ve got to go out there and earn it on the baseball field. That’s how I got this current contract and that’s how I plan to continue the rest of my career.”

This is not the first such awards-based clause in a contract, not even close. It just takes it to a different level. Some examples from recent deals:

  • Before Adam Wainright signed his extension with the Cardinals last week, his old contract included club options for 2012 and 2013 that became guaranteed when he finished in the top five in Cy Young voting in 2010 (he finished second to Roy Halladay). Ironically, an injury clause allowed the Cardinals to void the options when he was on the disabled list in 2011.
  • Santana has a club option for next year that would have become a player option under any number of scenarios, among them if he won a Cy Young award and finished in the top three in another year over the course of the six-year contract, or if he had three top-three finishes.
  • Yu Darvish has an $11 million salary for 2017 that becomes a player option with a Cy Young award and another top-four finish between now and 2016, or a second-place finish and two other top-four placements.

Those last two clauses required multiple Cy Young award finishes over a multi-year stretch. Verlander’s option is a one-shot deal. And dollarwise, none of the other examples have as much riding on them.

It could be tricky spot, but there isn’t much voters can do about it. The Baseball Writers Association of America tried to ward off a situation like this when it passed a rule in 2007 to disqualify any player from a BBWAA-voted award if there was an awards clause in their contract. That was set to take effect in 2013, but the BBWAA had little choice but to rescind it in 2011 because awards clauses have become so common. That said, I have no doubt voters will handle their decision seriously and with integrity. If Verlander deserves consideration, he’ll get it. If he doesn’t, he won’t. And let’s be honest, if Verlander puts up good enough numbers at age 36 to enter the Cy Young conversation, the Tigers will probably be interested in his services for 2020.

It might end up becoming a difficult position for Verlander and the Tigers. Keep in mind that baseball’s awards season takes place just before Thanksgiving, after free agency has already started and when agents are already talking with teams. If a 36-year-old Verlander has a good season in 2019 amidst a year of strong pitching performances, he could be waiting into mid-November to see if he’s on the open market. Even if there are seasons far better than his, all he has to do is finish fifth. Jered Weaver did that with a 13-12 season and 3.01 ERA in 2010, barely beating out Clay Buchholz (17-7, 2.33). Verlander finished in a four-way tie for fifth place in balloting, receiving one vote point along with Erik Bedard, Roy Halladay and Johan Santana.

Justin Verlander and the Chipper effect

For a player from a generation that gets criticized sometimes for not appreciating the history of the game, Justin Verlander gets it. He was influenced watching big-time pitchers growing up, such as Nolan Ryan, and he grew up watching a Braves team full of stars on TBS.

As great as Nolan Ryan was as a pitcher, though, he did it in different uniforms. Everyone remembers him as a Texas Ranger these days, but he was also a Houston Astro, and a California Angel before that, and a New York Met before that. Chipper Jones was, and will be, an Atlanta Brave for life.

And when I first asked Verlander about his contract situation back in January, Chipper was the name he brought up.

“I’ve made this point before, that the ultimate goal for me is the Hall of Fame, and I would like nothing better than to go into the Hall of Fame with the Old English D on my chest,” Verlander said on the Winter Caravan. “That doesn’t happen too often nowadays, for somebody to play with a team through their whole career. You see Chipper Jones, what he did, that’s something special.”

It wasn’t just that Chipper Jones had a Hall of Fame career. It’s that he did with it one team. So when Verlander was taking questions about his new contract Friday, I reminded him of it. I asked him if the fanfare Chipper received on his way out last season stood out to him. He said it wasn’t that. It was the way Braves fans thought of him.

“I didn’t really think about the fanfare that he got, more the admiration for him and that organization,” Verlander said. “He played his Hall of Fame career for one team and there’s no question he’s going to be in the Hall of Fame in an Atlanta Braves hat. I think that’s something special, and you don’t see that too often in today’s game anymore. I think the fans of that city really appreciate that.”

The Tigers have been blessed to have a handful of great players of their time — some who are in the Hall of Fame, others who should be — who spent their entire career in Detroit. Alan Trammell was Verlander’s first manager, albeit for two spot starts in the summer of 2005. Al Kaline is the face of the franchise to many. Lou Whitaker was an instructor in Spring Training for a few years and was around the ballpark some this spring. Chipper Jones is the equivalent for the generation that grew up watching Braves games on TBS.

Quotes on Justin Verlander contract extension

Tigers president/GM Dave Dombrowski on the timeline of negotiations:

“Really moreso when we started coming down here did we start engaging in some further conversations. It started to pick up really over the last 10 days to two weeks — some high spots, some tough spots. These things are never easy to get done. A lot of give and take on both sides to make it happen, and I think the commitment was from Justin that he wanted to stay with the Tigers organization and we wanted to keep him a Tiger.”

Verlander on using the end of Spring Training as a deadline for negotiations:

“I didn’t want talks to drag really anywhere close to the start of the season. This thing was pretty much wrapped up right after my last start [Wednesday], which was what I wanted. I didn’t want anything to be weighing on my mind close to the start of the season. This last week, my preparation and everything, I didn’t want anything to take away from that. My last start was pretty much the deadline for me.”

Verlander on the lure of potentially becoming baseball’s first $200 million pitcher:

“It’s obviously very intriguing. The fact is, I have a chance to get to the $200 million contract. I just have to earn it. I have no problem with that. The opportunity to stay in Detroit and earn $200 million is great. Obviously, it’d be nice if it was guaranteed, but I’ve got to go out there and earn it on the baseball field. That’s how I got this current contract and that’s how I plan to continue the rest of my career.”

Verlander on getting baseball’s richest-ever contract for a pitcher:

“Yeah, of course it does. Obviously it’s a pretty special feeling. It’s nice, because I’ve worked extremely hard for this. It’s not like I just go out there every fifth day and just throw my hat out there. A lot of hard work has gone into this since I was five years old. Obviously it wasn’t hard work when I was five.”

Dombrowski on the risk to signing pitchers in their 30s to long-term deals:

We all know that there’s a risk with pitchers, but I think that from a pitcher’s perspective and a club’s perspective, what you try to do is minimize those risks as much as you possibly can. I think in Justin’s case, first of all pure ability [helps], but second his work ethic. You see what he does day in and day out to prepare himself. You’re talking about an unusual individual to be able to achieve what he has, the number of pitches thrown on a regular basis. I’m sure that there’s some of that that’s inherent [ability], but it’s also that he works very hard at it.”

Dombrowski on what he expects from Verlander’s pitching as he ages:

“I’m sure there are some stats that after [age] 35, certain things start to get a little more questionable. But guys that perform at a very high profile [are unique]. He not only has great physical ability, but he knows how to pitch. He has four pitches, five pitches. He knows how to pitch as that carries forward.

Verlander on his pitching as he ages:

“That’s a ways off. I’m not thinking about that. And I’ve seen guys in the past, obviously it’s been few, guys that maintain their velocity into their 40s. So why not me?”

More from Dombrowski on the risks:

“And to me, there’s also an important part. I know this for sure: He’s not content now. He’s in very good hands financially, but he’s not content. He wants to be a world champion, and I think there’s also a lot to be said that I think he wants to be a Hall of Famer. And that’s great, because as he becomes a Hall of Famer, it helps all of us. He’s very team-oriented. He wants to win. But that’s a great goal to have.

Verlander on the lure of free agency:

“Absolutely, I think it’s only natural to wonder what free agency is like. But the pull from wanting to be in Detroit far outweighed that. Obviously once we started contract talks, I wanted to stay in Detroit, and I wasn’t shy about saying that. I think it all worked out.”

Verlander on his first big purchase with his new contract:

“First big thing is my start on Monday. No, nothing too special. You might see a new car in the parking lot.”

Tigers sign Verlander through 2019, option for 2020

Justin Verlander casually mentioned in January how cool it would be to spend his entire career in a Tiger uniform. He just took one big step towards doing that.

The Tigers, meanwhile, took care of their biggest contract question for the rest of the decade. With a five-year contract extension, they kept Verlander in a Detroit uniform through at least 2019, with a vesting option for 2020.

Terms of the contract were not released. ESPN’s Buster Olney reported that Verlander will make $28 million each season from 2015-2019, the years of the extension. The vesting option for 2020 is reportedly worth $22 million.

Verlander has two years left on the five-year, $79.5 million contract he signed after the 2009 season. He’ll make $20 million in each of those seasons.

Add those two seasons with the reported terms of the extension, including the option, and Verlander would be baseball’s first $200 million pitcher.

Though Verlander brushed off any sense of urgency about getting an extension done this spring, he made it clear last week that he didn’t want to negotiate during the season. With next season being his contract year, he would’ve been close enough to free agency that he might have been tempted to test the open market.

The extension obviously takes that out of the question. It also puts Verlander at the top of game on the field and off.

Fister to pitch home opener, rotation order set

At long last, the Tigers rotation order is out. Anibal Sanchez and Rick Porcello will follow Justin Verlander and start Wednesday and Thursday in Minnesota. Doug Fister gets the honor of pitching the home opener next Friday against the Yankees. Max Scherzer be the last starter to make his season debut, pitching next Saturday against the Yankees.

It’s a shuffle of sorts in that Porcello, the “fifth starter” in that he won the competition for the only open rotation spot, will pitch the third game of the season. Leyland had said for a while that he would use all five starters the first time through the rotation, rather than use the off-day to skip one of his starters. As he cautioned the other day, Porcello isn’t the fifth starter. He’s one of five starters.

Scherzer looked for a time like he was in line to pitch the home opener. He’ll still get to pitch at Comerica Park, and he’ll actually get a network TV game on that first Saturday. By moving to the fifth game, his next start would be in Oakland at the start of the Tigers’ West Coast trip in two weeks.

Would Tigers sniff at second helping of Big Potato?

Scott Boras called it a “philosophical cliff” for a team to put a minor-league prospect in a prominent big-league position and know what to expect. That phrase came during the Winter Meetings, and though Boras didn’t mention Bruce Rondon or the Tigers by name, he sure alluded to the situation.

“The evidence says that there are many young players in our game that are 20, 21 that can hit 30 home runs and drive in 100 runs and they’re extraordinary talents. Or win 15 games. But there have never been closers that can come in and get 30 saves,” Boras told reporters back then. “I think you count on one hand the number of closers under the age of 23 that have ever gone to the big leagues and at a young age put together 30 saves, let alone pitch in the postseason and be effective.”

Now that Rondon is headed to Triple-A Toledo to open the season, Boras isn’t gloating, at least not publicly. He still has a closer he’s trying to line up with a job. It isn’t the closer Boras was trying to market when he made those remarks (that was Rafael Soriano), but it’s the same closer the Tigers let walk as a free agent to give Rondon a chance to compete for the closer’s job in Spring Training.

“Our plan was to wait and see what closer options availed themselves at this time,” Boras said of Jose Valverde, who is currently throwing bullpen sessions for teams in his native Dominican Republic.

Would the Tigers now be one of those options? Boras isn’t mentioning specific teams, and the Tigers aren’t talking about options outside the organization.

At this point, a match is looking unlikely, even with Detroit staring at a closer by committee that does not include the closer of the future. However, it wouldn’t be a surprise if Boras tried to re-engage Tigers officials and maybe ownership, given the history both Valverde and Boras have with the organization.

Boras said Thursday that Valverde has thrown for multiple teams so far, and has a couple more teams lined up in the coming days. He would not say which teams, but he said he has had more contact with teams as roster decisions have unfolded.

Boras said Valverde’s fastball is registering at 93-94 mph, according to scouts’ radar guns. That echoes what Boras has told others over the past couple weeks. He also said Valverde is open to a one-year contract. Once Valverde wraps up these workouts, Boras said he expects a decision and a deal to come together with a team fairly soon.

Meanwhile, team president/general manager Dave Dombrowski said Thursday morning that the Rondon decision doesn’t change the Tigers’ approach to the market. He also said he had nothing going on as of Thursday morning.

Though the Tigers have been rumored to be interested in potential trades for relievers, such as San Diego’s Huston Street and Luke Gregerson, Dombrowski told the Detroit News last week he has not made a trade proposal.

Dombrowski has said all spring that he believes they have options in camp to fill the closer role, whether Rondon made the team or not. Now that Rondon isn’t on the team, Dombrowski said they have options to close games, even if they don’t have a closer.

“We have guys that we feel very comfortable can close games,” Dombrowski said. “We may not have a closer anointed, but we have many guys that we think can close games. And so [manager] Jim [Leyland] will, kind of like he did in the postseason at times last year, mix and match.”

Even if Valverde does sign somewhere in the next few days, he would not be ready to open the season in the big leagues. He’ll need some appearances against live hitting, either in extended Spring Training or the minor leagues. He probably wouldn’t be far off.

Worth optioned to Toledo, Tigers roster set

The final roster move to set the Tigers roster was the move everyone was kind of expecting: Infielder Danny Worth will open the season at Triple-A Toledo.

The Tigers announced the move after Thursday’s loss to the Astros at Osceola County Stadium. Worth, who finished the game at third base, headed back on the team bus and will head over to minor-league camp on Friday.

Worth shuttled five different times between Detroit and Toledo last year alone, so no one knows better than him that this isn’t a long-term banishment. Still, the fact that the move was the last of camp, and it came at almost the very end, had to have hurt.

“It was a good conversation, because he’s such a respectful kid. It wasn’t a fun conversation,” manager Jim Leyland said. “I’m not going to elaborate, but I can tell you that in reality, we had 27 guy this year that we tried to fit on a 25-man squad, and we just couldn’t do it. Because he deserves to be on the team. But at this time, that did not work out. With [Quintin Berry] and Danny Worth, we had two guys that probably deserved to be on the team.

“He played great. He’s hitting better than I’ve ever seen him. He’s playing better than I’ve seen him. He looked like a big leaguer and he is a big leaguer, but that’s not much consolation for him today.”

Though Worth was initially thought to be in competition for the final spot on the 25-man roster, he stuck around on the chance of winning the utility infield spot held by Ramon Santiago for the past several years. Santiago signed a two-year contract before last season to fill it, but the Tigers were by all indications checking the market to see if there was trade interest. Santiago will make $2.1 million guaranteed this season, so the Tigers would’ve had to eat a bulk of that salary to facilitate a deal.

Much like last year’s Winter Meetings, when Santiago’s name first popped up in trade rumors, any interest was limited by the contract. Thus, Worth is a Mud Hen again.

Thursday: Tigers at Astros

Andy Dirks returns to the starting lineup in left field, which pretty much rules out what was left of the possibility he would open the year on the disabled list. Prince Fielder is the DH for a second consecutive day.

TIGERS

  1. Austin Jackson, CF
  2. Torii Hunter, RF
  3. Miguel Cabrera, 3B
  4. Prince Fielder, DH
  5. Victor Martinez, 1B
  6. Andy Dirks, LF
  7. Jhonny Peralta, SS
  8. Alex Avila, C
  9. Omar Infante, 2B

P: Anibal Sanchez

Tigers option Rondon, go with closer by committee

The Tigers will open the season with a closer by committee. It just won’t include their closer of the future.

Detroit set its pitching staff Thursday morning by optioning hard-throwing closer prospect Bruce Rondon to Triple-A Toledo along with long reliever Luis Marte. With that, the seven-man bullpen is set for Opening Day, with lefty Darin Downs and high-strikeout middle relievers Al Alburquerque and Brayan Villarreal joining long reliever Drew Smyly and veterans Phil Coke, Joaquin Benoit and Octavio Dotel.

Team president/general manager Dave Dombrowski, who announced the moves, said manager Jim Leyland will mix and match relievers in the ninth inning according to matchups. He didn’t announce the key members in the committee, but Coke, Benoit and Dotel would be most likely to get the bulk of the save opportunities.

“There’ll be a guy out there in the ninth to close games for us,” Dombrowski said. “We have guys that we feel very comfortable can close games. We may not have a closer anointed, but we have many guys that we think can close games. And so Jim will, kind of like he did in the postseason at times last year, mix and match.”

As for Rondon, he’ll be the closer for the Mud Hens as he tries to find the consistency that eluded him at enough points this spring to leave Tigers officials uneasy about opening the season with him in the big leagues.

“As you know, we like him a lot,” Dombrowski said. “He has thrown the ball very well at times this spring. All the times, you can see his arm strength and all that’s attached. But we just thought he would benefit a little bit more by some more development time. Very similar to guys like, say, [Avisail] Garcia or [Nick] Castellanos, premium prospects that we just think would benefit by more time at Triple-A.

“At times, he has been very, very good, and at other times, he’s been very inconsistent.”

Rondon had a rough start to the spring as he worked through some mechanical issues. A tweak in his delivery from pitching coach Jeff Jones seemed to get him into a dominant form, but he struggled in a couple outings down the stretch, including a rough appearance Wednesday in which he walked two batters and let in a walk on a balk after he and catcher Alex Avila had a mix-up on signs.

All the while, those struggles took place under the scrutiny of team officials, talent evaluators and media alike.

“Obviously [Tuesday] he was lights-out, but I think everybody has unrealistic expectations,” Avila said Wednesday. “I mean, every time he pitches, you guys ask how he did. It seems like everybody expects him to have a 1-2-3 inning with three strikeouts every inning. That’s never going to be the case.

Rondon finishes his spring with eight runs allowed on 17 hits over 12 1/3 innings. He struck out 19 batters, but walked nine.

Dombrowski left open the possibility of bringing Rondon up, maybe even relatively quickly. However, he said, “I don’t want to put a time frame on it.”

The decision, Dombrowski said, does not change his approach on the trade market. He said they do not have anything in the works, reliever or otherwise, to bring in anybody at this point.

“You still don’t leave any stone unturned,” Dombrowski said. “but I don’t have anything I’m on the verge of. If anything happened right now, it would be completely something that I’m not [currently] working on.

“It’s happened. that’s why I don’t want to discount it. But the way I look at it is, you keep talking to people, you keeping looking, you see what happens. I notice who’s on waiver wires. I’ve talked to different clubs. Our scouts have talked to different clubs. I mean, it would really come out of the blue. And I would think that tomorrow, when we’re heading out, I would think we’d be settled unless something totally unexpected happens.”

 

Verlander shutting down contract questions

Remember the CBSSports.com piece from a few days ago, quoting Justin Verlander saying he didn’t want any contract negotiations during the season? Well, he doesn’t want any questions regarding contract negotiations starting … right … about … now.

The question on his contract came up as expected after his 5 2/3 innings of work Wednesday against the Phillies.

“I’ve got no comments on contract anything,” Verlander said. “We’re one start away from Opening Day and I’d prefer to talk about that.”

Does that signal anything going on, considering Verlander has taken questions on his contract status all spring? At this point, there are no signs that anything is close. The Tigers haven’t commented on Verlander’s contract status all spring, other than GM Dave Dombrowski saying he’d like to keep Verlander in a Tiger uniform for a long time. Verlander’s agent, Mike Milchin, is known for not saying much of anything to the media on negotiations.

It could also be that Verlander didn’t want to take questions on contract talks on this particular day.

Here’s the thing about Verlander: Though the Tigers don’t close spring training until Saturday, when they wrap up Grapefruit League play against the Rays at Tropicana Field and then fly to Minneapolis, Verlander goes into regular-season mode starting Thursday. His final spring start was moved to Wednesday so that he could start Opening Day on his standard four days of rest. He is a creature of routines, and his regular-season routine starts now.

It’s hard to tell whether there’s any room for Verlander to take on contract talks in the midst of that routine. The fact that Verlander isn’t talking about it could suggest that he is, or it could suggest he’s just shutting everything down now. It’s hard to tell with him.

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