Detroit – Once again, Justin Verlander towered in front of his locker Wednesday, this time dressed in a brown suit worthy of an expensive full-page ad in Vanity Fair. He was wearing a pair of crafted brown shoes. He looked a bit like a magnate.
But it could not be said Wednesday that he was a winner. Not even on a day when he had pitched with his usual exceptionalism.
Eight innings. Two hits. One run. Nine strikeouts. Two walks.
He didn’t lose Wednesday at Comerica Park. But his team did, 4-1, to the Twins, who happen to own the worst record in the American League and who also happened to spank the Tigers in two of three games the Tigers figured they otherwise should have won, on home turf, against a club so troubled it fired its general manager, Terry Ryan, on Monday.
Verlander in his last 12 months and 31 starts has pitched sturdily: 3.23 ERA, handsome WHIP of 1.02, with an average of nearly nine strikeouts per nine innings.
BOX SCORE: Twins 4, Tigers 1
His record: 14-11. He is sitting on 166 career victories. He is 33.
It is impossible to ignore that a team looking for a seasoned warrior, a proven difference-maker in a playoff race and in October’s World Series tournament, might at least ask the Tigers if a man so accomplished, and still so gifted, would be available as the Aug. 1 (non-waiver) trade deadline draws near.
Verlander was asked Wednesday about that very possibility. He is smart and experienced after 12 seasons in the big leagues and no question blindsides him.
“I can’t answer that,” he said, meaning, essentially, I don’t want to answer that when I’m under contract to the only team I’ve ever known and a team I view with the sacredness of family.
“I want to stay here.”
And he absolutely does prefer to stay here. Detroit is his in-season home. He loves Birmingham’s conveniences and comfort and the relative isolation celebrities can count on in Metro Detroit’s tiny slice of Hollywood.
He relishes his home in Lakeland, Fla., his off-season getaway and spring-training abode.
The man is a confirmed Tigers superstar. He has a lineage that is long and seemingly permanent. It could make him a Detroit sports demigod for the ages.
But would he say no to the Dodgers, or Red Sox, who likely aren’t finished chasing rotation help, or Cubs, or any of the tall-timber contenders who might view Verlander as their ticket to one of those long post-season runs of the kind his Tigers team once put together?
Almost certainly not.
Verlander craves the playoff stage with a passion and sense of supremacy not every baseball master can match. Some stars deal with nerves and don’t play their best in October.
Verlander drinks it in, chugging on the grandeur, and he barely stops for a breath.
Other teams know Verlander’s portfolio, of course, and have in their consciousness a full sense for a man’s talents and extraordinary competitive makeup.
They also know he has a contract. It’s a big one: $84 million owed from 2017-19, with a French pastry vesting option ($22 million in 2020 if he finishes in the top five in Cy Young Award votes in 2019) included pretty much as decoration.
In other words, it’s no big deal, not for well-heeled teams, which includes all of the above candidates for this year’s World Series.
Chances are of course slim Verlander would be dealt. The Tigers would need to be wowed by any offer. Interested parties would be forced to absorb his paydays and still provide the Tigers with a handsome dowry of prospects.
And, more to the point, Verlander would be required to approve any such deal, given his no-trade status as a player who has been 10 years in the big leagues, with at least five years (and in his case, all of his years) with one club.
But he would listen, for sure, as will the Tigers, if only to hear what a suitor might care to offer a Detroit team that continues to look like a less-than-serious playoff bet.
The Tigers might also consider a bit of sentiment, not inappropriate, as baseball gets ready for what figures to be a heavy shopping rush ahead of the Aug. 1 wire.
Verlander deserves every shot at future post-seasons. He should be pitching deep into the oncoming autumn. It’s not out of the question the Tigers could pry their way into the picture. Not with J.D. Martinez, Jordan Zimmermann, and other help (Daniel Norris?) getting closer to escaping the disabled list.
But remember, too, that with all of the above healthy and performing, the Tigers weren’t much different in earlier weeks and months than they’ve come to be steadily defined through 95 games (49-46) in 2016. Unless the profile seriously changes, this is a team, slightly better than break-even, which looks as if it has marked itself as close but not close enough to honest contention.
It’s worth keeping an open mind as next week arrives and the aisles jam with contenders scrambling to out-shop their rivals. Nothing can excite a front office, clubhouse, or fan base, quite like adding a billboard talent whose prowess and past suggest he’s the key to an October parade.
Verlander is one of those players. And all the contenders, theorizing they’re one fabulous starter from a championship, understand why it might not hurt to phone Detroit.