Justin Verlander, super reliever?
Every so often we see this idea floated. The past couple of times it was regarding the best way for the Tigers to use their struggling ace during the postseason. This time Diane Firstman wondered at ESPN's baseball blog, Sweet Spot, whether the Tigers should convert Verlander to a super-reliever role and allow him to get 100-plus innings out of the bullpen in the regular season. Given the state of the Tigers' relief corps, this would seem to solve two problems with one solution.
The answer is a resounding no. You don't sign a starting pitcher with MVP and Cy Young awards on his resume to a contract worth $180 million that runs through the year 2019, only to convert him to a reliever two seasons in.
This is the kind of idea that works well in a video game or as a thought exercise but would never happen in the real world and won't happen in Detroit.
Firstman acknowledges as much, writing, "So will the Tigers do this? They seem willing to take on financial risks; Miguel Cabrera, Victor Martinez and Verlander all have long-term contracts as examples. However, they may have a hole in their rotation if (Max) Scherzer signs elsewhere. There would also be the public outcry over Verlander's perceived 'demotion to the pen' and 'a $28 million reliever?'"
Still, the idea behind the thought is intriguing. Verlander, recovering from surgery to his core muscles before the 2014 season, continued to be a strong pitcher early in games. The first two times through the order, or typically through the first five innings, he was at his best. Then it would all fall apart as often as not.
Tigers manager Brad Ausmus would give Verlander the opportunity to pitch out of messes, but you can't get by on your past at baseball's highest level, and he didn't.
The sabermetric crowd would point out that Verlander was worth one win above a minor league replacement player in 2014, per Baseball Reference, down from 4.6 a season earlier and a peak of 8.4.
Verlander had the lowest WAR among regulars in the Tigers' 2014 rotation, or if you prefer the traditional way of looking at the matter, the highest ERA (4.54).
As Firstman correctly points out, it shouldn't be that hard to replace 200 innings of a lowly 1 WAR pitcher. Getting Verlander into games more often and getting better innings out of him when he's there should only benefit the team.
The problem is that this analysis is built on one founding idea -- that the Verlander who pitched for the Tigers for the past year or so is the one they're going to get for the rest of his career.
No doubt it's a lot to ask for the 32-year-old-to-be to pitch like he did during the peak of his career several years back.
However, it seems equally unlikely to expect him to continue to pitch like he did in the past season -- for the very reason given for his recent struggles. A surgery performed in the middle of the offseason has to have an effect on his season.
Remember earlier in Verlander's career when he would always struggle in the first month or six weeks before turning a new gear? Then one year, the ace was present from his first game to his last.
Verlander at the time credited changes to his offseason regime that helped him better prepare for a full season on the mound. It's hard to imagine a scenario that a surgery performed in January has no impact on his season.
During the All-Star break this year, Miguel Cabrera reportedly told Jorge Ortiz of USA Today that he and Verlander were both still hurting.
There are never guarantees, but it's a lot easier to imagine a proper offseason of workouts and rest should lead to both players performing better in 2015 than it is to believe they'll both continue to see steep slides in their careers.
If you believe Verlander will never again be better than he was in 2014, making him a reliever might make a lot of sense.
It's just hard to believe that's actually true. Verlander will remain in the Tigers' rotation, as he certainly should.
Kurt Mensching is the editor of Bless You Boys, a Tigers blog (www.blessyouboys.com). He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.