Henning: With Sale off table, Verlander to Nationals makes sense

Lynn Henning
The Detroit News
Justin Verlander

National Harbor, Md. – Now it’s down to a narrower list of teams that might have the urge, and inventory, to pry Justin Verlander from Detroit.

Boston always made sense. In context, anyway. The Red Sox were bent on grabbing an ace-grade starter during this week’s Winter Meetings. And the Red Sox are now piloted by Dave Dombrowski, a general manager who loves nothing more than to craft hulking headline deals that, at least on the surface, give his team a glorious shot at winning a championship.

But at mid-day Tuesday, after a quiet first two days at baseball’s Winter Meetings, Dombrowski did what he so often did in Detroit. He blew up the meetings. He traded not for Verlander, which because of salary and age was never Boston’s first choice, but instead hauled in Chris Sale in a whopping deal that sent stud second baseman Yoan Moncada, as well as 100-mph man Michael Kopech and others, to the White Sox.

Verlander remains, practically speaking, on December’s trade mart. For a price Detroit finds appealing. But there are few teams other than the Washington Nationals who (a) can handle a remaining contract as grand as Verlander’s and (b) who have the prospect prizes Tigers general manager Al Avila will demand.

Chances that Verlander will pitch for any team outside of Detroit in 2017 are low. But until the Nationals and their savvy, trade-maestro GM, Mike Rizzo, decide to instead deal with the Rays for Chris Archer or Drew Smyly or one of Tampa Bay’s available arms, or find help elsewhere, Verlander is too enticing, too correct of a fit, for Washington to ignore.

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The Red Sox were bad bets to chase Verlander for reasons underscored by what became a spectacular bid for Sale.

They were third in the big leagues in 2016 at $215 million. They were over the luxury-tax line by nearly $30 million and were staring at heftier penalties, and even more heat from Commissioner Rob Manfred, if they didn’t get salaries more in step in 2017.

That pretty much canceled Verlander even if Dombrowski hadn’t preferred Sale, who is 27, and who has one of the club-cushiest deals imaginable during the next three seasons ($38 million, total).

It’s a different story in Washington. The Nationals are perhaps one prime-time starter from giving the Cubs a serious reason to worry about next year’s National League pennant. They were 10th in payroll in 2016 at $163 million and could absorb Verlander’s tab with no undue stress.

They also have what the Tigers need. In abundance.

Victor Robles (outfielder, 19), Reynaldo Lopez and Lucas Giolito (right-handed starters, 22), Erick Fedde and Joe Ross (right-handed starters, 23), and Andrew Stevenson (center fielder, 22), who, it should be noted, was ready to become a Tigers draft pick in 2015 until the Nationals grabbed him in the second round, eight picks ahead of Detroit.

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Any combination of the above would lure Verlander from the Tigers – if Rizzo, who is one of baseball’s shrewdest dealers, decides he must have Verlander.

And that’s a long way from being a certainty when Rizzo can trade for younger, less expensive pitchers. Even if they weren’t a Cy Young finalist in 2016 who is probably destined for a Cooperstown plaque.

There is another side to any potential Verlander deal if the Tigers and Nationals were to chat seriously. Verlander would need to bless any swap.

He has spent all of his big-league life with the Tigers. Any player who has been in the league for 10 years, five with the same team, can veto a trade. Verlander probably would OK a Nats arrangement for several reasons.

Max Scherzer

The first, and most important, is that Washington could win a World Series in 2017. With another blue-chip starter, anyway. Even with their starry rotation, the Nats need a kingpin alongside Max Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg, Gio Gonzalez, etc. Verlander would qualify as a plus-plus add, and Rizzo knows it. If you plan to beat the Cubs any time during the next five seasons, he’ll need more artillery than Washington has flashed in its past playoff fadeouts.

Verlander also knows the Nationals culture. He grew up in nearby Virginia. This is his old backyard.

It figures, too, that an East Coast or West Coast address works for his fiancée, Kate Upton, whose career, if you haven’t noticed, is high-profile and would figure to be more conveniently situated along either American shore.

Assemble the pieces, focusing most heavily on the Nationals’ taste for a World Series, and Verlander makes as much sense as can be made from thoughts the Tigers would deal him. Or that another team could afford him.

Dombrowski was bound to push the plunger sooner or later and drop a dynamite blast on big-league baseball’s trade mart. Tuesday’s move tore apart what had been something of an ice-jam. By way of eliminating a top trade target in Sale, the seismic Red Sox-White Sox swap helped adjust December market standards.

It also made other suitors jealous. Maybe above all, the Nats, which seemingly had been close Monday night to getting Sale.

Now, Rizzo can concentrate on other options. And if they didn’t include Verlander, simply to inquire about an asking price, it would be an astonishing surprise to all – beginning with the Detroit Tigers.