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On open market, Verlander would command MVP payday

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The Tigers locked up Verlander two winters ago with a five-year deal, and lucky for them. (AP)  
The Tigers locked up Verlander two winters ago with a five-year deal, and lucky for them. (AP)  

If you want to know how valuable Justin Verlander is, ask yourself this question: What would he be worth on this winter's free-agent market?

"He'd get $25 [million a year]," one veteran executive said Monday. "Or more. Probably more."

Exactly.

He'd be in the Albert Pujols range.

Forget WAR. Forget comparing how many games Verlander appeared in, or comparing how many plate appearances Verlander was part of to how many Jacoby Ellsbury or Jose Bautista were part of.

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If you want to know how valuable Justin Verlander is, ask yourself how much you'd pay to have him pitch for your team.

Then tell me he wasn't the Most Valuable Player in the American League this year.

He was named the MVP on Monday because he got by far the most votes, beating out Ellsbury, Bautista and Curtis Granderson among others. But he was the MVP because he was as valuable as any player in all of baseball.

He won in part because there was no other obvious top candidate, and because there were plenty of others deserving of top consideration. That's why Verlander was able to win, despite being completely left off the ballot by one voter (Jim Ingraham of Cleveland) and being voted eighth by one other voter (Sheldon Ocker, also of Cleveland).

Perhaps Ellsbury would have been the winner (or at least made the race closer) if the Red Sox had made the playoffs. Perhaps Bautista would have won had the Blue Jays played any part in the pennant race.

They didn't, and Verlander's Tigers did. And while they didn't win solely because of what Verlander did (no team wins solely because of one player), it was Verlander who provided the push they needed most.

On May 29, the Tigers were 25-26, after losing the first game of a day-night doubleheader with the Red Sox. Verlander beat Josh Beckett that night, starting the Tigers on a 70-41 run to the American League Central title.

Verlander started just 23 of those 101 games, but the Tigers went 20-3 in those starts, with Verlander going an incredible 20-2, with a 1.94 ERA. From Memorial Day to the end of the season, he basically guaranteed them a win every fifth day, and because he pitches so deep into games, he basically guaranteed the bullpen would be rested.

"We do have a major impact," Verlander said on a Monday conference call, speaking for starting pitchers in general. "On my day, the pitcher's day, the impact we have is tremendous."

I made the same argument in 1999, when I voted Pedro Martinez first for the American League MVP. Martinez finished second to Pudge Rodriguez that year, in part because two writers left him off the ballot completely.

In fact, no starting pitcher has won the MVP since Roger Clemens in 1986, and Clemens was the only starter to win since Vida Blue in 1971.

Verlander, who studies baseball history and makes no secret of his desire to one day be in the Hall of Fame, idolized Clemens when he was growing up. But he said he never considered the idea of winning the MVP himself, because he knew the trend has been against voting for starting pitchers.

"I dreamed of winning the Cy Young, and my next dream is of winning the World Series," he said. "This wasn't even on my radar."

Verlander said he hopes this vote sets a precedent, but I don't think it does. You'll see on Tuesday, when Clayton Kershaw likely won't finish anywhere near the top of the National League MVP vote.

The problem for Kershaw is that he is doubly disadvantaged -- a starting pitcher for a team that wasn't in the race. Verlander only had to overcome the bias against starting pitchers.

But should there be any bias at all?

A top starting pitcher is every bit as important to a winning team as a top position player, which is why of the six highest contracts ever based on average annual value, three went to starting pitchers (Clemens, CC Sabathia and Cliff Lee) and three went to position players (two to Alex Rodriguez, one to Ryan Howard).

Verlander signed a five-year deal with the Tigers two winters ago, signing away his final two arbitration years and then three years of free agency, which were valued at $20 million each. He otherwise would have been a free agent this winter, and ask yourself how happy the Tigers are now that he isn't.

The Tigers signed Miguel Cabrera at a similar stage, valuing his free-agent years at $20.5 million each.

The only difference is that they were willing to go eight years on Cabrera, and just five on Verlander. The long-term risk is greater for pitchers, but the market value for top pitchers and top position players is virtually the same.

So yes, pitchers can be as valuable as position players.

A pitcher who has a year like Verlander's can absolutely be the most valuable player in the league, as well as the Most Valuable Player.

Verlander was all of that this year.

How valuable was he?

Just ask yourself how much you'd pay to have him on your team.

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