The first Major League free-agent signing following the MLB lockout went to an unexpected player, as the Cardinals announced Friday that they’ve signed right-hander Drew VerHagen to a two-year contract. VerHagen, a client of ISE Baseball, spent the past two seasons pitching in Japan. He’ll reportedly be guaranteed a total of $5.5MM — $2.5MM in 2022 and $3MM in 2023. He can further boost his earnings via incentives.
While the 31-year-old VerHagen probably wasn’t predicted by many as the first post-lockout domino to fall, he’ll head back to the big leagues not only on a guaranteed contract but on a multi-year arrangement. The 6’6″ righty struggled for much of his six seasons with the Tigers, pitching to a 5.11 ERA over the life of 199 big league frames. His two-year stint overseas changed his fortunes, however, as VerHagen broke out as a key member of the Nippon-Ham Fighters’ bullpen.
In two seasons with the Fighters, VerHagen notched a 3.51 ERA in 2017 1/3 innings while punching out a quarter of his opponents against a strong 7.2% walk rate. He’s long had decent velocity (94 mph average) on his sinker and has a track record of inducing grounders at a high rate (53.9% in the Majors) — which fits in well with the Cardinals’ otherworldy infield defense.
Broadly speaking, the Cardinals have a track record in signing players out of Japan’s Nippon Professional Baseball and the Korea Baseball Organization — both in terms of former big leaguers making a return and established NPB/KBO stars making their first jump to MLB. The Cardinals’ 2017 signing of Miles Mikolas (two years, $15.5MM) proved one of the better return pickups in recent memory, and KBO lefty Kwang Hyun Kim spent the past two seasons as a key member of the St. Louis pitching staff after signing at two years and $8MM. VerHagen is the latest to follow that path on a big league deal, though the Cards’ January signing of righty Aaron Brooks to a minor league contract could eventually enter that fold.
VerHagen worked out of the rotation with the Fighters, and Cards president of baseball operations John Mozeliak suggested today he’ll compete for a starting job in St. Louis as well (Twitter link via Jeff Jones of the Belleville News-Democrat). That said, a bullpen spot seems easier to carve out, given the already crowded nature of the team’s starting staff. The Cardinals’ rotation includes Jack Flaherty, Adam Wainwright, dakota hudsonMikolas and lefty steven matz, who inked a four-year, $44MM deal earlier in the offseason. The Cards also have prospects Matthew Liberatore and Zack Thompson working their way toward the Majors, plus depth options like Jake Woodford and John Oviedo.
The addition of VerHagen gives them a potential long relief and spot-start option, but he could also find his way into a late-inning role if he can maintain some of his overseas success. Giovanni Gallegos is the current favorite to close games for newly minted manager Oliver Marmol, and there’s plenty of talent throughout the rest of the bullpen mix. Alex Reyes and Jordan Hicks have both closed games in the past, while Genesis Cabrera and veteran TJ McFarland give the Cards a pair of solid left-handed options. It’s quite possible the Cards will make further bullpen additions, as they’ve been connected to higher-profile relievers such as Joe Kelly and Ryan Tepera throughout the duration of the lockout.
Mark Feinsand of MLB.com first reported the agreement and the terms.