Henning: Verlander deal makes sense for all

Lynn Henning
The Detroit News
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Justin Verlander was traded to the Houston Astros late Thursday night in exchange for three prospects.

As much as you can score a trade in the early hours of Friday, it looks as if three parties won Thursday night.

The Tigers, Astros, and Justin Verlander all agreed, one minute before midnight’s deadline, to a trade that sends a man of royal Detroit sports blood to Houston and, more important for Verlander, to October’s playoffs where he so often has been radiant.

The Tigers are trying to reconstruct a baseball roster in Detroit and needed young bodies. They got three potential stars from the Astros in pitcher Franklin Perez, center fielder Daz Cameron, and catcher Jake Rogers. They are, respectively, 19, 20, and 22 years old, and all were top 11 prospects in a rich Astros farm system.

The Astros, of course, have a fabulous big-league team that needs but one element, a rotation pillar, which Verlander figures to be as he continues at age 34 to look more like the snarling, fire-wielding, get-out-of-here ace he was during the Tigers past playoff heyday.

But he needed to sign off on Thursday’s deal. Initially, he balked, for reasons known to Verlander. With the midnight candle almost snuffed, Verlander finally said yes to a trade that should offer flood-ravaged Houston a measure of glee as it duels with one of the most destructive natural disasters in American history.

All along this trade seemed almost to make too much sense. For everyone.

Verlander needs October. He is a Hall of Fame-bound pitcher. Rather than become inhibited or intimidated or diminished by a Hollywood moment, he thrives on it, brushing aside noise and tumult and historical realities to throw a baseball with fury and grace.

Transparent situations

This is what the Astros got Thursday night. They found a tribal chief for their pitching staff. They brought to Houston a right-handed craftsman who can yet throw a fastball at 97 mph, with an equally devastating curve, as well as a change-up, not to mention two  two  different sliders that make him a five-pitch maestro.

The Astros will love him, all because the man possesses two exceedingly rare traits. He has championship pitches and a competitive demeanor to match.

Those of us who have watched him pitch this season have been awed, even by past Verlander standards. Not even four and five years ago, when he could hit 100-mph with his fastball and leave hitters to ponder a job-training course at their local community college, was Verlander more imposing than he has been in 2017.

It has to do with his skill set and with the savvy an athletically intellectual man has marshaled in this, his 13th big-league season.

There was a sense Wednesday at Colorado, as he spun more gold against the Rockies, that this was it for Verlander and the Tigers. That this had to be his finale. It made no sense  not even in professional sports, where rational thought often can be at a premium  that Verlander was not being chased by a team aware of what he would deliver now and in October.

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Obvious to everyone in baseball was that the Astros most needed him and were most in position to make a deal.

Just as transparent was the Tigers’ situation. They have been open for the past year to trading Verlander, not because they wanted a Motown baseball icon out of the way. Not because they saw his remaining contract  $56 million, minimum  as anything unmanageable.

Rather, they are tackling a reconstruction cycle the Astros, and Cubs, and Dodgers, and others were confronting a decade ago. It’s important to remember that those teams’ tough years were being endured as the Tigers were enjoying a giddy interlude loaded with season-long drama, blood-freezing playoff games, and two World Series trips  everything baseball could offer but a championship parade.

Now it’s the Tigers’ turn to repeal and replace. And they’re into the act full-speed.

Al Avila, the Tigers general manager, has assumed a nifty mission, not easily carried out.

Avila has been obliged to pare down his old, aging team, with its bad contracts tied to a previous go-for-broke mission overseen by late owner Mike Ilitch.

Other teams aware of Detroit’s goals have been light on Tigers compassion. They saw, at least until the past few weeks, no appeal in heavy contracts or in celebrity players after baseball’s commercial habits began to change radically in 2016.

Avila was stranded. He wanted to deal nearly anyone on the roster. But shoppers were either uninterested or they offered grocery store coupons in exchange for talent that demanded something closer to retail.

Signaling a new era

The terrain began to change in July. The Tigers found a customer for J.D. Martinez and whisked him to Arizona for three infield prospects.

Days later, Avila got two more upside-heavy infielders from the Cubs in a swap that sent Justin Wilson and Alex Avila to Chicago.

Thursday was the day Comerica Park rocked. Never, in 12 hours, have the Tigers traded more high-profile flesh and blood than they dealt beginning with an afternoon move of Justin Upton to the Angels.

The situations with Upton and Verlander were dissimilar entirely. Upton could step free from his six-year contract with the Tigers after his second season. Apparently believing he can do better than the $88.5 million the Tigers owe him, he had made it clear, as far as the Tigers believed, that he was saying adios to Detroit and would crash the free-agent auction house this autumn.

The Tigers wanted something other than memories of the 59 home runs Upton has hit since he brought his bat to Detroit in 2016.

Accordingly, Avila dealt him Thursday to the Angels for a minor-league starting pitcher, Grayson Long, who could be at Comerica Park within a season or two.

That left 12 hours for browsers to get serious about Verlander. If, that is, they were keen on making him part of their postseason roster. Add a player after midnight, Aug. 31, and big-league rules stipulate that player can’t be part of a team’s playoff corps.

And so we waited. To the very final seconds. All of us who could not believe one Justin Verlander, with his prowess and past, would not be courted by a team that knows the immense boost such a pitcher can offer a team in a playoff series.

The Astros finally bit. Verlander, who had the right to refuse a trade because of his status as a big-league elder, ultimately agreed.

The deal was done at 11:59 p.m.

And now a town must adjust to the void Verlander’s departure will visit on Detroit.

He has been a Tigers lighthouse since he signed with the Tigers in November 2004, the second amateur player drafted that year. He was a rotation regular two seasons later, which, not coincidentally helped gift-wrap Detroit’s first World Series trip in 22 years.

He has been an amazing presence these years. Star athlete. Bigger-than-life celebrity. A baseball artiste who has long shown, in proper proportion, that he also understands show biz.

But now he belongs to another city and to its baseball team. And to its hopes.

The Tigers will be hewing a new baseball life and identity in these coming seasons. They will be different years, for sure. They could also be pleasing, in a relative way, as the reconstruction arc takes shape.

The talent lured from the Astros a few seconds before midnight Thursday should help.

It’s a new baseball era in Detroit, signaled loudly and with ample melancholy, as Verlander moves to Houston.


Twitter: @Lynn_Henning

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