Detroit — Justin Verlander sat in front of his locker Wednesday, as he has done countless times over the last decade, patiently and forthrightly providing sound bytes to the radio and television folks, and filling the notebooks of print reporters.
On this day, he obliged the topic de jour: The prospect of him being traded, of not finishing his career as a Tiger. It’s a topic he’s been responding to — with essentially the same answers — since last winter when general manager Al Avila made it known that he was listening to trade offers on his entire roster — including an icon like Verlander.
“It’s in the background,” he said of the trade rumors. “I don’t pay too much attention to it. Obviously, I see it and hear it. But that’s out of my control. If it does come to that point, then it is in my control.”
That’s the key to his calmness, right there. As a player with 10 years of service with the same team, he has veto power over a trade. He can control his destiny. And, the truth is, he knows if the talks with a team ever got serious, Avila would keep him in the loop.
“If there is anything, Al has been very forthcoming with me,” Verlander said. “He’s said, ‘Don’t listen to everything that’s out there. If anything comes to fruition, I will be the first to talk to you about it.’
“So, until or if that point comes, I am not going to think about it.”
The Cubs and Dodgers have reportedly expressed an interest in talking trade for Verlander. Avila has made it known that it’s not a fire sale. He’s not giving Verlander away.
This all happened back in December, too, before the winter meetings. Avila and manager Brad Ausmus reached out to Verlander, Miguel Cabrera, J.D. Martinez, Ian Kinsler and other veterans, alerting them that they are likely to hear their names bandied about in trade rumors.
So, in that sense, it’s déjà vu for Verlander.
“I don’t know if you remember when I first signed here,” said Verlander, referencing his long and at times contentious first contract negotiations with the Tigers. “I was introduced to baseball as a business pretty quickly, and I’ve never forgotten that.
“I think of this organization as family. But you always know there is that underlying business tone. It isn’t just happy-go-lucky. There is an organization that needs to be run.”
The difference this time is, the Tigers aren’t showing any signs of clawing back into contention, and the organization’s commitment to flattening their bloated payroll has strengthened. Which in turn has strengthened the likelihood that Verlander could be dealt.
He can sense it.
“A lot of people will come up to me in the street and say, ‘Hey, I hope you stay,’” he said. “Or, ‘Thanks for everything you’ve done.’ Honestly, a lot of people say thank you.”
Bottom line, Verlander knows there is a good chance he will draw trade offers. He understands it from the Tigers’ point of view. He’s also said repeatedly he is not interested in being part of a rebuilding process.
He also made it clear that he thrives on pitching in big-stakes games, so it’s not out of the realm that he would happily accept a trade to the Dodgers – he and fiancé Kate Upton have purchased a home in the Los Angeles area — or the Cubs.
But he’s not sitting around dreaming of playing in another city.
“It’s one of those things you don’t think about until it’s right in front of my face,” he said. “It’s like when we have a bad stretch as a team and the media talks about that. You come in here and you say, ‘Hey, let’s keep it internal and keep it positive.’
“It’s the same mentality. You worry about what you can control until you can’t control it. And for me now, that’s my bullpens, my work tomorrow, my start on Saturday and my All-Star break vacation (laughter) — that’s what’s on the forefront of my mind right now.”
He’s not likely to accept a trade to a losing team, just like a losing team is not likely to trade for him and the $78 million left on his contract. If a contending team like the Dodgers will offer up two or three top prospects — then Verlander and Avila will have a decision to make.
“It’s not like I am sitting here feeling like I am at the end of my career,” he said. “My body feels great and my arm feels great. I feel like I have a lot of time left. Hopefully, I can win a title for this organization.”
And if he leaves for a chance to win a championship, who in Detroit could blame him? Who in Detroit would not say, with sincerity, thanks for all you’ve done?
“This is a good baseball town and they understand the reality behind it,” Ausmus said. “If it doesn’t look like the team is going to win, or if the team decides it’s going in a different direction, I don’t think they would begrudge him.
“The vast majority of fans in Detroit like Justin Verlander. He has been extremely good for them for an extremely long time and been on a lot of winning teams.”