NEW YORK — Justin Verlander’s phone rang in November. New York Mets owner Steve Cohen was on the line.
“It really wasn’t a baseball call. It was just a ‘Hey, this is Steve. You’re Justin. Let me get to know you a little bit,'” the pitcher recalled Tuesday.
That conversation led to an $86.7 million, two-year contract on Dec. 5, a deal that was finalized two days later.
The three-time Cy Young Award winner was introduced at a news conference at Citi Field. Verlander joins former Detroit teammate Max Scherzer atop the rotation, and effectively replaces Jacob deGrom, who left New York and agreed to a $185 million, five-year contract with Texas.
“I would expect the pool and pingpong games to maybe take on another level,” Mets general manager Billy Eppler said of adding another hypercompetitive player to his clubhouse.
New York, seeking its first World Series title since 1986, has boosted its luxury tax payroll to about $360 million next year, on track for a record tax of about $85 million.
Entering their third season under Cohen, the Mets have committed $476.7 million to seven free agents. They also added starting pitchers Kodai Senga and Jose Quintana, retained center fielder Brandon Nimmo and closer Edwin Diaz, signed reliever David Robertson and reached an agreement with catcher Omar Narvaez that is pending a physical.
“We just talked about putting the best team we could on the field and kind of let winning drive the decisions,” Eppler said. “With some of the conversations that we had, the future does come up and it comes up a lot. But in the here and the now, being able to put a club together that we feel really good about was important.”
Verlander said he’d been given a heads up that Cohen would call.
“When I look back at the process, it was one of the things I think gave me an insight into how Steve views the organization and this isn’t just an investment for him,” the 39-year-old right-hander said. “He wants to have his finger on or get to know people intimately that are involved in this thing, and what more could you ask for as a player than that?”
When Cohen called, Verlander knew the Mets were waiting for a decision by deGrom, a 34-year-old two-time Cy Young Award winner who was hurt for much of the last two seasons.
“He’s iconic here in this stadium and for this organization,” Verlander said. “I don’t think it was fair to him or to me to make that decision before he made his decision.”
But Verlander said that he himself “took a leap of faith … and I think that leap of faith has paid off.”
Verlander’s wife, model Kate Upton, sat in a front-row seat in a purple pantsuit with their 4-year-old daughter, Genevieve, and watched the pitcher put on a No. 35 Mets jersey.
“Billy has a vision, knows the team intimately and what puzzle pieces best fit to make the complete puzzle,” the nine-time All-Star said. “But, ultimately, some of those pieces aren’t cheap.”
Eppler said deGrom’s contract was far longer than the Mets were comfortable with and that “it kind of fit our timeline with Justin.
“We were comfortable doing that one, especially after interviewing him a little bit and getting a sense of how he takes care of his body, how he takes care of his — from all aspects, right, whether it’s sleep, nutrition, stretching, ”
Returning from Tommy John surgery in September 2020, Verlander went 18-4 with a major league-low 1.75 ERA this year in 28 starts for the Astros and raised his career record to 244-133. He also got his first win in nine career World Series starts in Game 5 as Houston beat Philadelphia in six games, earning his second World Series ring.
Verlander is guaranteed $43,333,333 in each of the next two seasons, matching Scherzer’s annual salary in a $130 million, three-year deal through 2024. Verlander has a conditional $35 million player option for 2025.
He said he also “loved the vibe” of New York because of an offseason he spent with Upton in Battery Park City.
“When I got to live here and really kind of understand the city and feel the vibe and get to know the grid a little bit better, it really opened up my mind as to how great this city is, and I’m so thankful now looking back, that I had that time, because it’s really intoxicating,” Verlander said.
Having come back from core muscle surgery in January 2014 and then the elbow operation, Verlander said he continues to pitch because of “what a bad example it would be for my daughter” to retire.
“Why would I put in all that time and effort and work and sacrifice and sell myself short at the end?” he said. “It’s like running a marathon and stopping a mile from the finish line. Maybe I’m 10 miles from the finish line.”