Tigers first round draft pick Alex Faedo talks about coming to Detroit. Robin Buckson, The Detroit News
Detroit — More than a dozen years ago, Justin Verlander stood in the October chill at Comerica Park after signing his first contract and vowed he wouldn’t step on the mound until he was a major-leaguer. Two years later, he was pitching in the World Series for the first time, and it wouldn’t be the last time, although it almost certainly won’t happen here again.
It’s an image from a different era, and the contrast grows starker by the day. Tigers’ first-round pick Alex Faedo, a power right-hander from Florida, met the media Wednesday with the polite confidence of a young Verlander. The Tigers don’t often introduce new prospects when they sign, but this is a team no longer bashful about its shifting directions and intentions.
Faedo, who was brilliant pitching Florida past LSU for the College World Series championship, said he’d never been to Detroit until the past two days. Verlander once was equally wide-eyed, and then seemed as if he’d never leave. But as he sat at his locker before the game, Verlander was at ease, reflecting on an 11-year career that might veer suddenly in the coming weeks, as his name floats in trade rumors.
He laughed about his first time at Comerica in 2004, when light snow dusted the mound after a protracted contract negotiation.
“When I first signed, I got introduced to baseball as a business pretty quickly and I’ve never really forgotten that,” Verlander, 34, said. “Even though I think of this organization as family, you always know there is that underlying business tone. It isn’t just happy-go-lucky — this is an organization that needs to be run.”
The reality has been dawning for a while, since GM Al Avila declared in the offseason the Tigers would have to get their finances in order. The market precluded big trades then, but now they loom, as the Tigers churn toward the July 31 trade deadline well below .500.
Verlander has spoken on the topic many times, and there’s no apparent bitterness between him — or other potential trade chips — and the organization. Nobody is fooling anybody. Avila kept the group together, and if the record allowed it, he might’ve kept it together longer.
‘Where there’s smoke’
That’s remote now, and while Verlander has struggled mightily at times, his velocity and health are good. That’s probably why high-level suitors such as the Dodgers and Cubs reportedly lurk, although they may demand the Tigers pay some of the $56 million owed Verlander the next two full seasons.
Verlander has no-trade rights, and reiterated he won’t consider his options until Avila requests it. But it’s pretty clear he doesn’t want to endure a rebuild here, and if a contender makes an offer, it’s hard to imagine Verlander declining to waive the clause. If there’s to be a parting between the Tigers and their longtime ace, it appears it’ll be a respectful one, in a sports world where career franchise guys grow rarer by the year.
“Fortunately, I can control my own destiny, but if the organization thinks it’s best for them, if I think it’s best for me, there are a lot of variables,” Verlander said. “But obviously, where there’s smoke, there’s fire. … Al’s been very forthcoming. He said, ‘Don’t listen to everything that’s out there. If anything comes to fruition, I’ll be the first to talk to you.’ Until — or if — that point comes, nothing to think about really.”
Avila attended the introductory news conference for Faedo but declined to discuss trade possibilities, except to say there was nothing new. It was impossible to ignore the contrast, as another big (6-5) pitcher with a competitive feistiness fielded questions with aplomb.
Faedo was the Most Outstanding Player in the CWS with a staggering 22 strikeouts in 14.1 innings. He’s only 21 and won’t pitch the rest of the season, and is at least a couple years from a major-league shot. He boosts a farm system that needs help, but is starting to stockpile arms.
“He’s a big part of what we’re doing, and future drafts are hopefully going to bring us more guys like him,” Avila said. “He’s the type of competitor, fearless on the big stage, that separates a No. 1 or 2 starter from a 3 or 4.”
The Tigers drafted Faedo at No. 18, lower than he was expected to go, and they were ecstatic to get him. Avila even compared his fierce mentality to former Tiger Max Scherzer. Faedo was a workhorse at Florida — his fastball regularly hit 94 and topped out at 98 in the CWS, but his change-up needs work.
Faedo made the rounds in his first visit to Detroit, from the Henry Ford Museum to the riverfront, and was amazed by all the Tigers gear he saw. He knows how much the Tigers have valued strong arms, from Scherzer to David Price to Rick Porcello to Verlander.
“The one thing I know about the Tigers is, being a Tampa Bay Rays fan my whole life, I got to see Verlander and the pitching staff just shove against us constantly,” Faedo said. “Hopefully I can add to the history of the organization.”
Fading history and fresh looks, the prevailing theme these days. Faedo and Verlander met briefly Wednesday, quick hellos between the stalwart and the newbie.
Verlander feels the shift and completely understands it. You get the sense he’d accept whatever the Tigers chose to do, as long as he lands on a team poised to win. And if a club is willing to ante up for him, it’s expecting to win immediately.
As a rookie back in 2006, Verlander had no idea the Tigers would win so quickly, and then no idea his two World Series appearances would end ingloriously. Has the passage of time made the title chase more urgent?
“Yes and no,” Verlander said. “I think I realize how much harder it is now; it was kind of a Cinderella story early for myself and the city and the ballclub. The flip side is, I’m not sitting here thinking I’m at the very end of my career. If you’d asked me a few years ago, it might’ve been a different story. But right now, my body and arm feel great. I think I have a lot of time left. Hopefully we can win for this organization.”
He said it respectfully, and his affinity for Detroit is genuine. So is his competitiveness. And so is the business of baseball, which he first discovered way back then, when he was the promising youngster seeing Comerica Park for the first time.
In a way, homegrown stars and self-built eras are the best kind. But they’re not immune to the ravages of time and the realities of the game, a simple lesson likely to be written anew.