Tigers’ best draft picks in 30 years battle for first ring
In a postseason that began with more than a dozen former Tigers in the mix for a World Series ring, three still are standing.
And two just happen to be among the best Tigers’ draft picks of not just recent history, but all-time.
Justin Verlander, the new ace of the Astros, and Curtis Granderson, an outfielder for the Dodgers, each will play in their third World Series when things get started Tuesday night — and each will be searching for their first World Series ring.
“No, no,” Tigers general manager Al Avila said this week, when asked about his rooting interest — though it’s worth noting, his father, Ralph, remains a consultant for the Dodgers, as does Tommy Lasorda, the godfather of Alex Avila. But his relationship with Verlander is deep, too. “What I usually like in these series is that it goes seven and it’s really exciting.”
Houston also has another former Tigers celebrated draft pick, outfielder Cameron Maybin, who had two stints in Detroit. But few Tigers have been celebrated by fans over the past dozen years like Granderson, a third-round draft pick out of the University of Illinois-Chicago in 2002, and Verlander, the No. 2 overall pick out of Old Dominion University in 2004.
By 2006, both were full-time, big-time contributors in Detroit, Granderson as the starting center fielder and Verlander as the ace of the staff, as the Tigers stunned baseball and — three years after losing an American League-record 119 games — made it all the way to the World Series.
That year not only marked the beginning of Tigers baseball renaissance, but also the start of two promising careers, one which should land Verlander, someday, in Baseball’s Hall of Fame, and another which should at least get Granderson some consideration, depending on how much longer he plays.
Verlander’s 56.6 career WAR (Wins Above Replacement), per BaseballReference.com, is fourth-best ever among a player drafted and subsequently signed by the Tigers, while Granderson’s 45.8 is fifth-best.
They are easily the two biggest draft successes in the Dave Dombrowski/Al Avila tenure, which began in November 2001. Nobody else comes close.
In the history of Tigers drafts — we’re counting only June drafts here, not the now-defunct January draft — only Lou Whitaker (74.9, fifth round, 1975), Alan Trammell (70.4, second, 1976) and John Smoltz (69.5, 22nd, 1985) have gone one to accumulate higher career WARs than Verlander and Granderson.
And Verlander, 34, is not anywhere close to being done adding to his career WAR, as he’s shown in his nine-game run with the Astros. And Granderson, 36, probably isn’t either, though he has struggled mightily in the couple of months since joining the Dodgers — so much so that he was left off the World Series roster, when the Dodgers announced their final 25 on Tuesday afternoon.
NO. 1 WITH A BULLET
The Tigers’ first two first-round draft picks under the Dave Dombrowski-Avila era were total disasters. In 2002, Detroit selected a high-school shortstop from California named Scott Moore. In 2003, the Tigers took Wake Forest right-hander Kyle Sleeth. The two would combine to play 152 games in the major leagues, all by Moore, and none with the Tigers.
When June 2004 rolled around, though, they were certain they had the man that could alter the franchise’s fortunes. Other teams might have liked this guy or that guy. Verlander was no consensus. But the Tigers were all in on the lanky right-hander — and even better for them, they got word the Padres, with the No. 1 overall pick, planned to take a high-school infielder named Matt Bush with the No. 1 overall pick.
“I can tell you one thing,” said Avila, “Verlander was the guy we wanted.”
Bush’s story is well-documented. He struggled with injuries and substance and alcohol abuse, and several franchises later, he found himself in prison. He’s turned his life around, and now is a relief pitcher with the Rangers.
But Verlander’s on the fast track for Cooperstown, a former rookie of the year, Cy Young Award winner and MVP winner.
And, amazingly, the Tigers almost didn’t sign him.
Verlander’s agent played hardball with the Tigers right up until the signing deadline, when it actually took Verlander’s father, Richard, to step in at the last minute, say enough’s enough, and tell the Tigers they were accepting their final offer, a bonus in the neighborhood of $4 million.
“It was very real,” Avila said, of the possibility Verlander wouldn’t sign and would return to college.
Verlander made his big-league debut a year later, yet still was a long shot to make the Tigers’ Opening Day roster in 2006.
That was Jim Leyland’s first year as manager, and after he had taken the job, he asked Dombrowski if he could take any players north that he wanted. Dombrowski said yes, “within reason.”
Two weeks into spring training, Leyland went to Dombrowski and said, “Well, I want him.” Him, of course, was Verlander.
Verlander went 17-9 with a 3.63 ERA that first full year in the major leagues, the next year he was 18-6, two years after that he was 19-9 and finished third in the Cy Young voting, and two years after that he had a season for the ages, going 24-5 with a 2.40 ERA to win both the Cy Young and MVP awards.
His 13-year Tigers career was mostly spectacular — he finished second in the Cy Young voting twice since that magical 2011, both times one first-place vote couldn’t tilted the results in his favor — outside of a couple injury-plagued seasons. He threw two no-hitters, and during one three-year stretch, it seemed like every time he took the mound, he’d throw another.
He’ll go down as arguably the greatest pitcher in Tigers history, even if some are more partial to Hal Newhouser, Mickey Lolich or Jack Morris. Unlike those three men, Verlander is almost certain to be voted by the baseball writers into the Hall of Fame. (Newhouser was a Veterans Committee pick.)
So you can understand if Avila, while working to trade Verlander in July and August, had a sick feeling in his stomach.
“This whole season of trades has been a sick feeling, but it was a necessity for the organization,” Avila said. “Obviously, he was the toughest because, quite frankly, he’s an original Tiger, we drafted him, I’ve known him since the day we got him. In this case, I probably got closer to him than anybody, because Alex, they became great friends, vacationed together. So there, it was more like a family member than just like a player.
“All that makes it 10 times tougher to trade a guy, not so much the Hall of Fame potential. It’s more of the relationships that was built over the years.”
The Astros couldn’t have known they were getting this from Verlander — if they had, after all, they wouldn’t have waited until seconds before the Aug. 31 waiver-trade deadline to get it done. They would’ve acquired him in July.
But, as they say, better late than never. Verlander has been unbelievable in Houston, pitching in nine games, and winning them all, dominating at every turn — especially in the American League Championship Series, when he made two starts, went 17 innings and didn’t allow a run. That included an exceptional, seven-inning gem in Game 6 to keep Houston’s season alive.
That was the fourth consecutive elimination playoff game Verlander won, and the third straight that he didn’t allow a run.
Tigers fans were sad to see Verlander go, though they understood it. The team is rebuilding, they need to get younger, and Verlander brought in a nice haul of prospects, among them pitcher Franklin Perez.
Trading Granderson was met with much more resistance by the fan base, who loved the kid from Chicago — and didn’t understand why he had to go when Dombrowski pulled the trigger on that deal at the Winter Meetings Dec. 8, 2009.
After all, the Tigers were contenders, on their way up, and Granderson, to them, was the kind of guy you built around. He had just hit 30 home runs in a season for the first time. Two years before that, he had 23 triples. He was seemingly built to play in Comerica Park.
But he also was about to get more expensive, due $5.5 million in 2010 and $8.25 million in 2011 under a backloaded extension he signed with the Tigers, and Detroit had needs elsewhere. So it wasn’t so much cost-cutting as it was moving money around.
“It was a very difficult decision, OK,” Avila said. “It was very hard to do that, because he was very popular. We all loved him.”
Avila also called that trade “scary,” because the Tigers were trading two proven players — Granderson, who’d just made the All-Star team, and Edwin Jackson — for four prospects. They were convinced they were getting Granderson’s replacement in Austin Jackson, a future stud pitcher in Max Scherzer, and two more solid relievers in Phil Coke and Daniel Schlereth.
So Granderson was dealt to the Yankees, where, not surprisingly, he thrived, that sweet swing from the left side meshing perfectly with the short porch in right. He had 108 homers and 292 RBIs in his first three years in the Bronx.
But the Tigers obviously did just fine themselves. Scherzer won a Cy Young Award in Detroit, and Jackson filled in nicely, until he, too, was dealt away in the David Price trade in 2014. Coke had his moments, as maddening as they were. Only Schlereth was a bust.
Avila still remembers what stood out about Granderson when the Tigers drafted him in 2002. He didn’t necessarily expect him to become a three-time All-Star, a guy who would go on to hit more than 300 career homers between the Tigers, Yankees, Mets (with whom he made a World Series) and, now, Dodgers. If they thought that, they would’ve taken him in the first of the draft. They knew the tools were there.
Verlander and Granderson left town amid totally different situations, Granderson traded away with the Tigers still on their way up, Verlander dealt away with the Tigers on their way down.
But they’ll forever be tied as two of the greatest draft picks in Tigers history.
And one of them’s finally about to celebrate their first World Series ring — while playing in another uniform.
This is the perfect World Series for the new-age baseball crowd, the two franchises who rely most on metrics and advanced analytics meeting in the final games of 2017. The Astros’ offense is far superior, as is the Dodgers’ pitching — especially the bullpen. The rotations are more level since Justin Verlander came on the scene a little less than two months ago. It’s been 29 years since the Dodgers last won it all, and forever for the Astros. That drought ends in a classic. Astros in seven; Verlander is World Series MVP.
All games start at 8 p.m.; all televised by Fox
Tuesday: Houston (Keuchel 14-5) at Los Angeles (Kershaw 18-4)
Wednesday: Houston (Verlander 15-8) at Los Angeles (Hill 12-8)
Friday: at Houston
Saturday: at Houston
x-Sunday: at Houston
x-Tuesday, Oct. 31: at Los Angeles
x-Wednesday, Nov. 1: at Los Angeles