Tigers pitcher Justin Verlander had said recently he wasnít going to discuss an extension once the season started Monday. Thatís a standard line. Itís true, players donít like distractions. But that line also serves as notice: You want to talk, letís talk now. (Robin Buckson/Detroit News)
Detroit — In the Tigers clubhouse at Comerica Park following a game last September, while teammate Miguel Cabrera was chasing a Triple Crown and Most Valuable Player votes, Justin Verlander showed off his immense knowledge of the game, ranting on the topic using names, facts and figures from more than half-a-century ago.
This, here, is a great student of the game who appreciates its history like few before him, and even fewer today.
So, then, it's hardly a surprise that Verlander — who on Friday signed a seven-year, $180 million extension that will keep him in Detroit until at least 2019, and potentially for the duration of his career — smiles when asked about wearing the Olde English D for life.
It used to be standard practice in the game, playing only for a single team. Al Kaline. Alan Trammell. Lou Whitaker. They all did it. They came, and never left.
But the game has changed, and today it's more about money than sentiment (see Pujols, Albert). Players seemingly change teams more than socks.
Not Verlander, though. He's going nowhere soon, and potentially ever.
Tiger for life. Miguel Cabrera can't say that. Nor can Prince Fielder.
Tiger for life. Nice ring to it, eh?
Time is now
It's no real shocker Verlander, 30, is staying in Detroit. That probably would've been the end result, even if contract talks were tabled for this regular season and resumed in November.
But why wait?
Verlander had said recently he wasn't going to discuss an extension once the season started Monday. That's a standard line. It's true, players don't like distractions. But that line also serves as notice: You want to talk, let's talk now.
And talk, the Tigers did, hammering out paperwork that makes Verlander the highest-paid pitcher in the game — at least, until the Dodgers re-up with Clayton Kershaw.
It's low-risk for the Tigers, with Verlander's flawless, Nolan Ryan-like mechanics that could have him holding up well into his 30s, if not his 40s, like his idol, Ryan.
And looking at it now, this all made sense, this timing. The Tigers have a whole boatload of issues to address next winter — for starters, the middle infield, where shortstop Jhonny Peralta and second baseman Omar Infante are set to be free agents. In the bullpen, too, there could be departures, from Octavio Dotel and Joaquin Benoit.
And who knows? The Tigers may still be searching for a closer next winter. That's a lot on the plate. Getting the Verlander deal done takes pressure off both parties, and allows GM Dave Dombrowski to focus his attention elsewhere.
But getting the Verlander contract finished also serves another purpose.
We're three days away from Opening Day, and the Tigers — even without a closer — are the prohibitive favorites to win the American League.
And today's announcement sends a message: Owner Mike Ilitch isn't going to stop spending until he has at least one World Series ring to show for his efforts.
Think about this: Forbes recently unveiled its annual profile of baseball team's finances. And again, the Tigers were believed to have lost money — about $400,000. Now, that's not much compared to the millions they've supposedly bled in recent years, but that shows you how slim their margin for error is. This is a team that played six home playoff games in 2012, two in the World Series, and still lost money! Translation: Win it all, or swim in red ink. That's nuts. But that's Ilitch. He'll spend until he gets that ring — $214 million for Fielder, $180 million for Verlander, $153 million for Cabrera, $50 million for Victor Martinez, $26 million for Torii Hunter, and on and on — profits be damned.
Name another owner willing to take one for the city. I'll stop you there. You can't.
Count your blessings, Detroit.
Other owners may shake their heads, but Ilitch isn't all that obsessed with perception.
Verlander, though, well he is. He's a competitor in every walk of life, and wanted to be the best-paid pitcher, even if just for a day. The title now is his — perhaps at the price of tens of millions in additional cash he could've earned had he headed to free agency following the 2014 season.
Now, what does this mean for the Tigers going forward?
There are three significant contract situations looming — front and center, Max Scherzer, who's set to head to free agency after 2014. He'd be an ace on a dozen or more other teams, and will be paid as such.
The Tigers want him to stay, too; it's why he said this offseason there had been some contract discussions. But his agent is Scott Boras, so signing early — and potentially leaving a buffalo nickel on the table — isn't really an option.
So there's a good chance the Tigers could look to trade him before his contract runs out — what a haul he'd command — and try to make a run at instead keeping Doug Fister (free agent after 2015). Odds are, one stays and one goes.
And then there's Cabrera, the best hitter on the planet who, now, amazingly is owner of just the third-richest contract on this team.
He's about to turn 30, but could be a force for years to come, and the Tigers will look for any way to keep him in Detroit beyond his current deal which runs through 2015. Tigers GM Dave Dombrowski told me as such during a conversation earlier this offseason.
Makes perfect sense, of course. Think about this: In Verlander and Cabrera, the Tigers have arguably the best pitcher in the game and the best hitter in the planet, at the same time. How many teams over the years could say that. Have fun on Baseball-Reference.com. You won't find many, if any.
Both are on a direct path toward the Hall of Fame, and will go in with Tigers hats on their plaques — something nobody has done since Al Kaline was voted in by the baseball writers in 1980.
Cabrera can't be a Tiger for life, having started his career with the Marlins before being traded in a cost-cutting move. But the Tigers will try to make him a Tiger for the rest of his life. Of the "Big Three" looming free agents, this is priority 1, Scherzer priority 1A.
The ring, the ring, the ring
Ilitch can't keep them all, right?
You can't say that definitively, certainly not today. You'll never find me questioning this man's willingness to spend again.
Now, at some point, the 83-year-old owner has to be rewarded for his generosity — and the Verlander contract, on the eve of Opening Day, certainly serves as a rally cry. Not that the Tigers needed any reminder, or motivation. They, to a man (well, almost to a man, right Delmon?), were crushed after being swept by the Giants in the World Series.
They knew they were so close to getting Ilitch's hands on the Commissioner's Trophy, 20 years after he first bought the team from Tom Monaghan (for $82 million; think about that), and fewer than 10 after the Tigers had suffered threw a miserable 119-loss season.
Say what you want about the Yankees under the late George Steinbrenner. They spent big, and often crazy — but the old man was rewarded with a championship dynasty.
The Tigers have made two World Series under Ilitch but lost both in ugly fashion.
A World Series ring, meanwhile, is the only void in Verlander's career. He's won rookie of the year, a Cy Young and an MVP, and started an All-Star Game. Now, he's the highest-paid pitcher of all-time — and probably, eventually, will a Tiger for life.
Nice ring to it, certainly.
But "world champion" — that's the only thing better.