Detroit — Justin Verlander looks around and doesn't see what others see. He doesn't see a dramatically diminished rotation without Max Scherzer, or longer championship odds.
Scherzer bet on himself and won, and the Tigers lost one of their Cy Young aces. David Price might make a similar wager, as he enters the final year of his contract. The Tigers long ago gambled on their original ace, and now more than ever, they need Verlander to deliver.
He says he feels great, slightly more than a year after core muscle surgery. He makes no excuses for last year's plummet, which added to the Tigers' rotation uncertainty. Scherzer's departure to Washington for a $210 million contract is damaging, but there's one person who can reduce the damage.
The Tigers are banking on a Verlander rebound, partly because they have no choice. More important, Verlander is betting on Verlander, and when you hear snippets of the competitive passion and reports of his physical transformation, it certainly sounds possible. Verlander is only 31 (32 next month), and not far removed from a dominant 2012 postseason performance.
"I feel better than I have in 3-4 years," Verlander said Thursday as the Tigers launched their Winter Caravan. "Obviously, losing a player of Max's caliber, it's always tough. But I think we're still gonna be one of the best staffs in baseball, if not the best. I know I gotta pitch better, and I will."
He uttered that same phrase numerous times last season, as he struggled to a 15-12 record with a 4.54 ERA. This time, the words carry some weight, and not just because Verlander said he added 20 pounds of muscle weight.
It was obvious the recovery hampered him, and he doesn't deny it. He underwent surgery last Jan. 10, destroying his workout regimen, and spent much of the season trying to get his body in order. Meanwhile, Scherzer was putting together a second straight dominant season, and Price was arriving from Tampa Bay. The Tigers needed pitching insurance, especially after Scherzer turned down their $144 million offer and Anibal Sanchez dealt with lingering injuries.
Dave Dombrowski and owner Mike Ilitch were prudent not to match the Nationals' offer to Scherzer, and I'm guessing part of their reasoning was Verlander. He has a five-year, $140 million extension kicking in, a cautionary tale about the risk of long-term deals. But there's also a chance a healthy Verlander can do what Scherzer would've done.
Team 'uniquely qualified'
Verlander and Scherzer competed for attention and status the past few years, and I think it pushed both. Did it also nudge Scherzer to leave? If it did, it should push Verlander even harder now.
Scherzer didn't talk about his former team when he was introduced in Washington, and Verlander said Thursday he hasn't spoken to Scherzer since the signing. This was not a weepy farewell, at least not publicly. When asked if the departure hampers the Tigers' title hopes, Verlander recoiled.
"Have you looked around and seen some of the names in this room?" he said. "I think you're losing the big picture here. You're seeing the small picture in one guy, in Max. One guy doesn't win a championship. I think this team is uniquely qualified to still be championship caliber despite losing one of the better pitchers in the game."
Verlander smiled, then playfully hammered his point.
"Hey, is that (Yoenis) Cespedes over there?"
The slugging outfielder was acquired from the Red Sox in the Rick Porcello trade, and should significantly enhance the lineup. There are other changes, and clearly other ways to win without a rotation three-deep in Cy Young winners. The Tigers haven't won a World Series that way, and have no assurances from Price beyond next season. He said Thursday he'd listen to contract offers but might test free agency.
There's only so much insurance the Tigers can purchase, after acquiring starters Shane Greene and Alfredo Simon. At some point, Verlander might be the last ace standing, and if he can approach anything close to the production of his 2011 MVP season, the Tigers still will have a horse atop their pitching heap.
"The thing about Ver is, this guy was one of the best, and he wants to be one of the best," Brad Ausmus said. "He's one of those players that if something changes where he's not the best, he's gonna find a way to get back, even if it's a different route."
That different route might include adding a pitch and trying to get more movement on his once-feared fastball. Verlander has to evolve from a pure power pitcher, and while he admits to stubbornness, he recognizes his physical limitations.
His fastball averaged 93.1 mph last season, continuing a steady decline. Such a dramatic drop had to be related to the surgery, and that's exactly what Verlander's physical therapists in New York suggested. He's in the midst of a much different offseason, able to engage in intense workouts four times a week. When he headed to Florida recently, his right arm and shoulder felt looser, like old times.
So here he was Thursday, newly emboldened and categorically disputing the notion he'd simply thrown too many pitches over too many years.
"I wish I was a robot and could go out and pitch perfectly every season," Verlander said. "But in reality, every career has its peaks and valleys. I never made excuses and I'm not making excuses now. (The abdomen) didn't hurt last season, but whether it robbed me of some power or control, maybe. My range of motion was horrible, my hips were jacked up. I wish I was better. I wasn't. Nothing I can do about it now."
Fortunately, there is something he can do about it now. As the aces get shuffled, Verlander is doubly determined to prove he's still a good bet.