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Orioles free agent target: Justin Verlander

Go ahead. Dream a little bit.

Houston Astros World Series Parade Photo by Carmen Mandato/Getty Images

With Mike Elias having proclaimed “liftoff” for the Orioles, Camden Chat writers are hoping for some impactful free agent additions to the roster. Over the next few weeks, we’ll be looking through possible signings - some more realistic than others.

There is nothing that would show that the Orioles are serious about trying to compete next year like making a big splash for a top-flight starting pitcher. The rotation, though much-improved compared to last year, still finished with one of the ten worst ERAs among big league teams. The number of pitchers among the current candidates who will be available on Opening Day and have had a full season of MLB success is zero.

Imagining the Orioles signing Justin Verlander may not be far off of from imagining yourself winning the recent billion-dollar lottery jackpot. For a couple of minutes here and there you can dream about something that seems to be amazing beyond anything you’ve ever experienced. Wouldn’t it be fun to have an actively-great starting pitcher instead of chasing formerly-great ones like Matt Harvey and Félix Hernández?

Verlander’s credentials require no elaboration. He has had a Hall of Fame-worthy career already. Most importantly for the idea of signing him for 2023, despite being 39 this year and coming back from Tommy John surgery, he utterly dominated, showing no signs that age is about to catch up to him. Verlander finished with a 1.75 ERA, 2.49 FIP, and 0.829 WHIP. Those ERA and WHIP numbers led all qualified pitchers.

The fact that Verlander was so great is what makes it so unlikely he might be signed by the Orioles. There are many teams who will be vying for his services and he will be demanding a big payday. FanGraphs predicts that he will end up landing a two-year contract with an absurd $40 million average annual value. MLB Trade Rumors thinks Verlander will get a third year at that same $40 million AAV. Either of these would be the biggest deal the O’s have ever given to a starting pitcher.

Even if the Orioles offered enough to seriously be in the mix, Verlander might rather sign for a team that was already great this year, rather than joining a hopeful up-and-comer as the O’s are now. There is nothing that the Orioles could do about that. There are a lot of barriers to this dream becoming reality. That’s what makes it a dream.

What can’t be denied is that this is a signing that would make sense from the Orioles perspective. The team has bottomed out the payroll over the last few years, falling more than $100 million per year from the 2018 team’s salary obligations to what they paid out this year: A mere $44 million. The O’s can afford to absorb an extra $40 million per year for a Verlander-level signing and toss a mid-tier $15 million per year guy on top of that and still be in the bottom third of team payrolls.

That Verlander would cost so much for what would still be a relatively brief contract even if it was three years is also something of an advantage. Look at it this way: The Orioles have some great young players who, if they continue to play great, will find themselves on track for big and increasing paydays as they move through their arbitration years. Full seasons 5 and 6 (2026 and 2027) for Adley Rutschman are going to get expensive. Gunnar Henderson will be a year behind Rutschman in getting huge checks, if all goes well for him.

An outlay for Verlander that comes off the books after, at the latest, the 2025 season, is timed perfectly for this purpose. There won’t be any angst about affording their own great players because Rutschman and Henderson’s hypothetical late-arbitration salaries could be absorbed into a Verlander-sized payroll hole - with room to spare for a free agent at this point down the road.

Contrast this thought with what dragged down the previous era of Orioles baseball. They had great players start pulling down $10+ million per year in arbitration salaries in 2017: Zack Britton, Manny Machado, Chris Tillman. What they didn’t have was a big, expiring commitment to help them pay these guys while signing players who could keep the good times rolling. Indeed, a big part of what kept them from adding free agents who’d meaningfully improve the team was ill-advised “I like our guys” re-signings of Chris Davis, Darren O’Day, and Mark Trumbo.

Take those three players out of the 2017 roster picture and put $40 million back into it on other players and things might have gone much differently. Then again, maybe not. Dan Duquette still would have had to have the ability to evaluate what pitcher would actually come to Baltimore and be good, something that, once his initial budget successes of Miguel Gonzalez and Wei-Yin Chen were out of the picture, he could not do. They also didn’t have the kind of prospect depth that the Orioles have right now.

Which brings us back to Justin Verlander. He is not someone where you need to hope that an erratic track record settles down, like when the Orioles signed Ubaldo Jimenez. He is not someone who will be a “Gee, maybe there’s a reason nobody else has signed this guy in late March” signing, like Alex Cobb. He has had a phenomenal career that included an absolutely great 2022 season. He is not the lesser “value” option a team will be settling if it signs.

Verlander will also cost nothing other than money. The Orioles do not have to give up any prospects in trade, or forfeit a late second round pick like they would to sign a qualifying offer-attached free agent. All they have to do is be willing to make a $40+ million per year bet for two or three years.

There’s risk there. This should not be undersold. Verlander missed the 2021 season with Tommy John surgery. He’ll be 40 next year. But there’s risk and downside in any possible signing. The Orioles can afford to absorb this risk right now because the only risks in their current profile are “What if not enough of these prospects are good enough to make a great MLB team?” Their roster, and expected fortunes for next season, would immediately benefit. Sign Verlander and be legendary!