Verlander convinces Tigers of his worth

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In an interview last year, Justin Verlander uttered the following words: "The Hall of Fame is something I feel is attainable."

And this was after his first win of the season.

So, no, I'm not surprised that he has insisted on getting more money than Felix Hernandez.

Verlander has agreed to a five-year, $80 million extension with the Tigers, according to a report by Larry Lage of the Associated Press. At that dollar amount, he would surpass the five-year, $78 million deal Hernandez signed recently with the Mariners.

Take note of those numbers. The proximity is not an accident.

Hernandez and Verlander tied for the American League lead with 19 wins in 2009. I doubt that Verlander sees this as a tiebreaker ... but with someone so competitive, it's hard to know for sure.

I have known Verlander for four years. He might be the most confident athlete I have ever been around. He has a very big, very forceful, very well-placed ego. And the Tigers had little choice but to indulge it with truckloads of cash.

In the end, Verlander's self-assuredness resulted in a good deal for him -- and the Tigers. And yes, he was right to ask for more money than Felix. (More on that later.)

Verlander is too smart to declare publicly that he's the best pitcher in baseball. But he's probably too proud to admit that anyone else is better. Hence the need to receive the biggest contract of any pitcher in an arbitration class that also includes Hernandez and Josh Johnson of Florida.

In the process, he has set up a perpetual comparison: Every time Verlander hooks up with Hernandez over the next five seasons, he will ignite a debate as to which of them is better. Virginia vs. Venezuela. And by a margin of $2 million -- if that is the precise difference -- the burden of proof will belong to Verlander.

It will be fascinating to see how Verlander handles it. At several points in his career, he over-threw (and struggled) in "statement" games. Then he became a different pitcher last year. The Tigers have to hope that he doesn't revert to the form that produced a disastrous 2008 season.

Earlier this week, I wrote that Verlander was justified in asking for more money than Hernandez. And that had as much to do with the respective organizations as the two right-handers.

As a general rule, Seattle is a sexier destination than Detroit when it comes to the free agent market. (Even as a Michigan native/resident, I concede that.) So, of the two teams, the Tigers would probably have a harder time replacing their ace.

Consider this: Even though they play in a spacious ballpark, the Tigers haven't signed a free-agent starter to a multiyear contract since Kenny Rogers after the 2005 season. And I probably don't need to remind you of Rogers' reputation within the game (and among cameramen) at the time.

Then there is the inescapable fact that the Tigers have handed out a number of huge contracts that have soured fantastically. You know the names: Dontrelle Willis, Nate Robertson, Carlos Guillen, Jeremy Bonderman.

The team couldn't afford to correct past mistakes by failing to spend big on someone who truly deserves the money. The Tigers' credibility was at stake -- particularly since a number of contracts (Willis, Robertson, Bonderman, Brandon Inge) will come off the books after this year.

And once Hernandez signed his deal, you had to know where the Verlander talks were going.

Sure, Hernandez has the better career ERA. And he is younger. But Verlander has won more games, posted more seasons of 15 victories or more, made more appearances in the All-Star Game.

He has the no-hitter. He has two starts in the World Series. He has the Rookie of the Year award. There is no denying that -- so far -- Verlander has accomplished more than Hernandez in the major leagues.

I don't know if Verlander will have the better career. I don't know if the Tigers   believe that he will. But none of that mattered when it came to this contract. The Tigers couldn't afford to let their ace walk because of a $2 million difference -- or $5 million difference -- over five years.

Not when Willis will earn $10 million in 2010.

Similarly, Verlander would have been foolish to turn down this much money in order to test the free agent market in 2011. His contract is worth almost as much as the megadeals signed by A.J. Burnett and John Lackey in the last two off-seasons -- and they were free agents .

If you're surprised by any of this, remember that Verlander led the big leagues with 240 innings last year. He loathes ceding the stage to anyone else. Not in September ballgames. Not in February negotiations.

He's stubborn. He's cocksure. But damn, he's good.