Wojo: Verlander leaves an icon, with unfinished business

Bob Wojnowski
The Detroit News

Detroit — He was a rarity and a novelty, a homegrown star who became appointment viewing, a power pitcher who knew the line between competitiveness and showmanship, and drew it for more than a decade.

Justin Verlander was great, then not so great, then great again, and his career path was unlike anything we’ve ever seen.

Unfortunately for Tigers fans, it’s something they may never see again. Verlander was the best pitcher in baseball for a stretch, and the best pitcher in franchise history. He won the Cy Young and MVP in 2011, pitched in two World Series, threw two no-hitters, and put fans on no-hit alert way too many times to count.

Now he’s off to Houston to try to win a World Series for a city and a team that could desperately use a boost, and in cases like this, you don’t realize what you had until it’s gone. Detroit had a star who had it all, from the fierce mentality, to the model girlfriend, to the charisma and the commitment. Along with Miguel Cabrera, the Tigers employed two of baseball’s biggest names, and now Cabrera is left to piece together what’s left as the franchise enters a painful, full-on rebuild.

GM Al Avila called the Verlander trade at the midnight hour Thursday “sad but necessary,” and it was. So was the deal earlier in the day that sent Justin Upton to the Angels. The Tigers’ contention viability expired at least a year ago, yet it didn’t feel official until Verlander, 34, departed. Fittingly, he helped the team right to the end.

By turning around his season — 2.41 ERA and .906 WHIP since the All-Star break — he made himself attractive again to suitors, even with $56 million on his contract the next two years. By publicly remaining committed and not demanding to be traded, and displaying his old dominance, he preserved some of the Tigers’ leverage. Avila responded with a fine return, landing three of the top 11 players from the Astros’ rich farm system, including 19-year-old pitcher Franklin Perez, who immediately becomes the Tigers’ top prospect.

“Because we were prepared to keep JV for the remainder of his contract, when you have that alternative, you can stand pat and say, this is what we want,” Avila said Friday. “Obviously, his performance was a big help.”

A Detroit icon

At the final minute, Verlander waived his no-trade clause for a destination that likely wasn’t his first preference, but should suit him very well. The Astros are young and talented, with the best record in the AL, and he instantly raises their championship odds. When the playoffs begin, prepare for the image of a determined, stubble-faced Verlander trying to help lift a storm-ravaged city.

It could be a remarkable story. It’s just no longer Detroit’s story, and that’s what hits fans in the gut. Verlander would’ve been lost in the messy transition here, and perhaps that makes it easier for fans to accept. The Tigers’ deterioration reduced the normal pushback you’d expect when an icon leaves town.

Ultimately, it wasn’t just a salary dump, and that’s important. The Tigers reportedly are even paying $8 million per year on Verlander’s contract. That upped the return and made it more palatable, but no less historic.

Verlander was the Tigers’ most-enduring star since Alan Trammell and Lou Whitaker, and before that, Al Kaline. If he’s not yet a Hall of Famer, he’s trending that way, and if he makes it, it seems certain he’d go in as a Tiger. In 13 seasons here, he was 183-114 with a 3.49 ERA and six All-Star appearances.

In this city, he was not quite Steve Yzerman or Isiah Thomas, who won championships, but he had that aura. Athletes with that type of competitive spirit and edgy intellect — performers as well as leaders — don’t show up very often.

It wasn’t just the 100-mph fastball or the icy glare. It was the flair, the 98-mph heater on his final pitch in the eighth inning of a close game, to show he still had it.

‘One of the best’

“Houston’s getting one of the best pitchers in the game, a guy that’s a bulldog, someone who takes the ball every five days and is gonna give you 115 pitches basically every time out,” Ian Kinsler said. “I think that’s what the fans hopefully miss, a guy that’s gonna give you everything he has.”

There were the dominant years from 2006-12, then the struggles from 2013-15, as he recovered from hernia surgery and had to adjust his mechanics. But he always scoffed at those who said he’d have to bow to age, alter his style, refine his form. At times he challenged fans and media, almost as a way to challenge himself, and once again this season, it worked.

Since his slow first half, he’s been one of the best pitchers in baseball, and the Astros finally came around to recognizing it. They hadn’t fortified their rotation as other contenders had, and Verlander’s rebound forced them to reconsider.

It took an extra month after the July 31 non-waiver trade deadline to convince all sides. The sentiments were apparent pretty much every time Verlander pitched, that it might be his last as a Tiger. Following his final start before the first deadline, he acknowledged the fans’ standing ovation.

“It was very nice, I felt it, I heard it,” Verlander said then. “These fans have been nothing but stellar to me my entire career. Hopefully they can say the same about me.”

Stellar and steely, he stirred it up like few athletes ever have around here. It didn’t result in a championship, which is too bad. But for Tigers fans, it was a helluva show.

Twitter: @bobwojnowski


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