Detroit — With each blown chance and each blowout, the end nudges near. As it does, it’s increasingly apparent the Tigers and their longtime ace will be forced to face the dreaded Big Decision.
Justin Verlander was pounded again by the Indians on Sunday, knocked out in the fourth inning as the Tigers built a tidy 11-1 deficit before falling 11-8. With a chance to win the series against the first-place rivals, Verlander was battered, and afterward, baffled.
As the trade-deadline drumbeat grows, the issue is unavoidable, and the Tigers will have to strongly consider a blockbuster deal involving Verlander.
If you’re into melodrama, you might even acknowledge the possibility he pitched his last game at Comerica Park, not scheduled to start here again until after the All-Star Game.
Verlander didn’t exactly look like a prime chip Sunday but he is, a chip the Tigers might have no choice but to play. To be clear, Verlander isn’t looking to leave, and still must agree to any deal. But during the offseason, when GM Al Avila first suggested the notion of a sell-off, Verlander said he was “too old to be part of a rebuild.” Now the Tigers (36-45) are plummeting in that direction, with their worst midway-point record since 2003. According to reports, teams expect Verlander to be available, and it makes sense.
Verlander and the Tigers are careening down the same path, locked arm in arm.
When he pitches this poorly in a big game, he lessens the team’s chances, while also theoretically lowering his trade value — and simultaneously increasing his trade odds. The team’s and the star’s fates can’t be mutually exclusive, and if Avila starts dealing, Verlander, 34, has to be in the mix.
“I’d say (trade rumors) are in the background,” Verlander said. “My focus is here and now. If there’s a decision to be made, then Al and I will talk about (waiving the no-trade). I’m not thinking about anything other than pitching and playing for the Detroit Tigers until — or if — anything happens.”
On the move?
Despite a subpar season — 5-5 with a 4.96 ERA — there would be plenty of interest in a power-armed workhorse who doesn’t have any apparent ailments and narrowly lost out on the Cy Young last season. Verlander’s contract still could be a problem, but it’s actually approaching reasonable status, with only two more guaranteed years at $28 million per. And it’s not like there’s a bounty of good starting pitchers available, with possibilities such as Jose Quintana and Sonny Gray.
Among the teams expected to be shopping for a front-line starter are the Dodgers, Astros, Cubs, Yankees and Red Sox. The Dodgers are especially intriguing because Verlander and fiancé Kate Upton purchased a home in the Los Angeles area, although Verlander has been steadfast in his desire to win here, where he launched his major-league career 11 years ago.
This was the line you always wondered if the Tigers would be willing to cross, and I think they are. They’ve had two superstar icons — Verlander and Miguel Cabrera — for most of a decade, and while no one was considered untouchable, you figured both would retire as Tigers. Cabrera’s contract is more prohibitive and he’s been injury-prone, so he’s not going anywhere. And there’s no assurance the other tradeable commodities — J.D. Martinez, Justin Wilson, Ian Kinsler, Alex Avila — will be as coveted as the Tigers hope.
Verlander would provide the biggest shakeup possible, but this must be reiterated — the Tigers shouldn’t dump players at any price, merely for the sake of paring payroll. “Sell everybody!” is fun to shout in frustration, but there’s a difference between a complete tear-down and a judicious use of assets. When Dave Dombrowski dealt David Price and Yoenis Cespedes and received, in part, Michael Fulmer (now the team’s lone All-Star) it was calculated, not desperate.
That’ll be the test for Avila, and in an oddly helpful way, the Tigers’ decline at least could remove the emotional aspect of it. Fans have appreciated Verlander’s greatness, but aren’t blind to the flaws. When he walked off the mound with one out in the fourth inning, having surrendered nine hits and seven earned runs, there actually was polite applause.
If that was one of Verlander’s last outings at Comerica Park, it was an ugly one. For the first time in 331 games, he didn’t record a strikeout. And once again, he sounded genuinely perplexed by his ineffectiveness.
“My body feels great, my arm feels great,” Verlander said. “I don’t know. Sometimes you’re the bug, sometimes you’re the windshield.”
Verlander has been the bug surprisingly often against the Indians. He faced them twice earlier this season and won one, and was clobbered in the other. In 51 career starts against Cleveland, he’s 20-23 with a 4.78 ERA.
It’s a feisty rivalry that the Tigers and Indians have alternately dominated. Detroit is 5-4 this season, with three games in Cleveland before the All-Star break. Less than three weeks later comes the trade deadline, but if the Tigers are out of contention before then, they won’t need to wait.
To be in contention, they needed dominant performances from stars like Verlander. Instead, he has alternated decent and down outings, while posting his highest walk rate.
“The raw stuff is still there — maybe sometimes the action on his pitches isn’t what he wants, or the command isn’t what he’d like,” Brad Ausmus said. “But the raw stuff always gives you hope it’s something that’s fixable. When the stuff starts to decline, then you get a little concerned.”
Verlander’s fastball velocity actually is up a tick, hovering around 95. He was hitting 98 against the Indians, and they hit it back even harder. His changeup and slider have been unreliable, but his trademark competitiveness hasn’t waned.
That’s about to be tested now. Verlander has said a major rebuild isn’t appealing, so we assume getting dealt to a contender would be appealing.
It’s a strange formula indeed — the more he struggles, the more his value drops, the more likely the Tigers will have to trade him anyway.