LAKELAND, Fla. – In the race to become the first $200 million arm, Justin Verlander has made it clear: Much like everything else he does, he wants to win.
"Of course," he told Yahoo! Sports on Friday morning. "I don't play this game to make the most money. But I do feel like it would be nice to be compensated for what I feel like I've been: one of the best, if not the best, the last few years. In my career, I feel like I've been one of the top. But the last two years, I've kind of separated myself, me and a handful of other guys.
"It's not a thing where I'm like, 'Hey, I want to be the highest-paid player,' where that's the chief goal. It innately comes with my competitiveness. That's just me. That's not why I play the game. I'm good at the game because of that side of me, because I'm competitive at everything I do."
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Verlander said "free agency is really cool," though he made certain to note: "I don't think you have to be a free agent to get [$200 million]," an indication that his preference is to stay with the Detroit Tigers, with whom the 30-year-old has spent his entire career.
"I think free agency is really cool and would be a great experience," Verlander said. "I would like to experience it, to be honest with you. But if Detroit comes along and says, 'Hey, here's an offer you can't turn down,' I'm not going to turn it down."
The prospect of a $200 million deal for a pitcher grew to a certainty when Seattle signed starter Felix Hernandez to a seven-year, $175 million contract on the eve of spring training. While Hernandez is more than three years younger than Verlander, who turned 30 on Wednesday, the last two years have indeed separated Verlander from his peers.
Among pitchers, there is the Tigers' right-hander and the rest.
Since 2011, when he won the American League MVP award, Verlander leads baseball in innings (489 1/3), wins (41), strikeouts (489), ERA+ (166) and opponent batting average (.205). He is second to Clayton Kershaw in ERA (2.52) and opponent OPS (.578).
Kershaw is his likely competition for a $200 million deal, between his age (25 in March) and team (the free-spending Los Angeles Dodgers). Verlander and Kershaw are both free agents following the 2014 season.
With two years left on his current five-year, $80 million deal, Verlander is more than willing to listen should owner Mike Ilitch propose an extension. Hernandez's $25 million-a-year deal set a new standard on long-term pitching contracts, beating Zack Greinke's just-signed six-year, $147 million free agent bounty by a half-million annually.
"I'm not just going to sit here and say yes to anything," Verlander said. "The risk-reward when you get to a year is intriguing. Me going into the free agent market as long as I pitch the way I have?
"I've gotten conflicting stories out there, and it's because I've said conflicting things. I've come out and said I love Detroit, love the idea of playing my entire career in Detroit, and I do. But also free agency is a cool idea. I can see how it came across as a mixed message."
The two aren't mutually exclusive. The Tigers organization understands the longer it waits to pursue an extension with Verlander, the likelier it is he tests free agency, which makes hammering out a deal this year imperative if they want him in their long-term plans. The Yankees, Red Sox, Dodgers, Phillies and other big-market powerhouses would line up to pay Verlander just about whatever he wants for however long he wants.
When asked whether dollars or years were more important, Verlander said: "I would probably say dollars, if I had to choose, just because I'm not worried about getting a 10-year extension. I feel like I'm gonna keep pitching. And if I'm still pitching, I'll get another contract."
The pervasive fear among pitchers past their 30th birthdays – how much longer will my arm hold up? – doesn't concern Verlander. His sturdiness is as much a hallmark as his fastball that gains velocity during games. Other pitchers in the major leagues study his mechanics and try to emulate them, and Verlander sees the precedent set by his brothers in freakish arms, Nolan Ryan and Randy Johnson.
"I looked at [Johnson's] no-hitter when he was 40, and he was throwing 97," Verlander said. "And I’m like, 'All right. I want to do that.' I don't plan on being done at 40."
Best-case scenario, he said, is in a Tigers uniform. Verlander enjoys thinking about his first TigersFest, the offseason extravaganza where fans get to mingle with players. At a table where fans sought autographs, players spent about an hour signing before rotating out. Verlander, merely a prospect at that point, replaced a veteran – and arrived to a chorus he remembers sounding something like: "Awwwwwww."
Now, he can't show his face in Detroit without getting mobbed. He wants to win a World Series with the Tigers after misses in 2006 and last season, and the Tigers – fortified with Torii Hunter, Anibal Sanchez and the return of the injured Victor Martinez – are distinct favorites in the AL Central and perhaps the league.
"I [expletive] love Detroit," Verlander said.
And Detroit will love him even more if all this free agency talk goes away. Verlander said there wasn't a magic number to lock him in. He doesn't need to say it. Ilitch and the rest of the organization know what they have to do.
Let him win the $200 million race.
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