With their win-loss record losing altitude by the week, and with a 2017 roster long past prime time, there was no in-house debate about how the Tigers would approach July’s trade deadline.
They were open for business. The Tigers would chat about any player or any deal that might help replenish a big-league team’s drained farm system and reacquaint Detroit with an old October playoff tradition.
But a source aware of July’s conversations and who asked not to be named out of sensitivity to all teams, says there were hang-ups as Tigers general manager Al Avila talked with GMs from both leagues, with emphasis on those clubs that, unlike the Tigers, had reasonable playoff shots.
Most teams weren’t interested in trading quality prospects. And they were especially disinterested if it meant taking on contract debt.
Justin Verlander would have been gobbled up in years past, probably by the Yankees in the old free-wheeling days of owner George Steinbrenner. But in July 2017 he was sitting there as a potential Hall of Fame pitcher, still the Tigers’ ace, still throwing lightning bolts, but ignored, largely because of the $56 million owed in 2018-19 and, to a lesser extent, because he will turn 35 next February.
J.D. Martinez was Exhibit B in how baseball’s market had turned nothing less than weird.
Here was a hitter with power who, if healthy over 162 games, could mash 40 home runs, bat .300, and carry a .900-OPS. Even with free agency three months away, Martinez, based on old July dispositions, should have been an auction-house prize, with multiple teams chasing a hitter who in one at-bat can bust up games and, potentially, be the difference in a playoff series.
But one team only – the Diamondbacks – was seriously interested. And that interest was about to dissolve, say those familiar with the Tigers-Diamondbacks discussions, if Arizona couldn’t make a rapid deal for Martinez, which happened on July 18 when the Diamondbacks shipped to the Tigers three infield prospects.
Avila otherwise had one poker-table ace: bullpen closer Justin Wilson, who for most of 2017 had been turning bats into dust. He was a left-handed demolition expert who was headed somewhere, all because the Tigers needed badly the blue-chippers he would draw and because Avila had multiple teams interested.
And while he wasn’t going to fetch a trade price comparable to Wilson, Avila had another card ripe to play: his son, Alex, a catcher who could also play first base, hit for left-handed power, and bring a heavy career on-base percentage to a team hunting depth for its October playoff march.
It happened that the two players were dealt as a package, only 17 hours before the July 31 deadline, when Wilson and Avila headed to the Cubs in a swap that brought two more infield prospects to a Tigers team starved for position players with upside.
Other deals that might have involved Verlander or second baseman Ian Kinsler languished, although big-league teams have until Aug. 31 to make trades based on waiver-wire claims, or once players – Verlander looms large here – have cleared waivers and can be dealt to inquiring clubs.
But what separated 2017 from past run-ups to July’s trade close was how dramatically baseball’s business place had shifted in the past 12 months. That market change – more of a bubble burst – came at the exact time the Tigers were hoping to off-load older, more expensive players whose seasoned skills theoretically would lure contending teams. These typically had been players whose past playoff track records had, in an earlier era, lured teams who believed polished elders such as Verlander could help deliver an October prize.
The Tigers had been ready as early as July 2016 to begin turning around a roster and payroll. Each had ballooned by way of big names and even bigger paychecks when late owner Mike Ilitch made a bid in his waning years to acquire whomever, and pay whatever, might bring to him and Detroit a World Series parade.
But the Tigers were flying straight into nasty trade headwinds. According to the same source acquainted with last offseason’s trade talks, Detroit was willing last autumn to trade Verlander, Martinez, Wilson, Kinsler – anyone but the team’s young starting pitchers who at the time weren’t for sale.
Verlander was appealing to the Dodgers, the source said. But after some early conversations they backed away and stayed away when a December event slammed big-league teams and their payrolls.
It was the arrival of a new owners-players contract that brought a heavier hammer on teams exceeding $200 million in payroll. The luxury tax on those teams was now going to compound in ways that made even those supposed bottomless spenders, the Dodgers, quake.
The Dodgers and other heavy spenders, the Tigers included, were being pushed by the new collective bargaining agreement (CBA) and by Commissioner Rob Manfred’s office to curb their payroll profligacy. To bridge the years between dropping expensive players and redoing their roster with manageable costs, the Dodgers as well as most teams that had come to fancy the value of young talent, were going to hang tight to their minor-league thoroughbreds.
The Tigers were getting nowhere last fall and winter in making as many as a half-dozen trades they would have considered.
Martinez’s situation was mostly about bad timing. The big-league marketplace had a rare glut of outfielders and power hitters that canceled any deep interest in him, especially when he was headed for free agency in the fall of 2017.
Verlander was too expensive in remaining paychecks and in the prospects Detroit would demand for suitors to make serious bids. Kinsler had a reasonable contract but few teams needed a second baseman. Ditto for shortstop Jose Iglesias, who was very much available.
Wilson should have been the exception. He was young, with a powerhouse fastball and with ability to knock out right-handed batters as well as left-handers. He was also two years from free agency.
But a team that seemed like a perfect match for all parties, the Astros, made a light trade offer that, the source said, Avila couldn’t consider.
Avila saw during last December’s trade bazaar, the Winter Meetings outside Washington, D.C., that shopping aisles were all but empty.
The Tigers would need to wait until July when baseball’s mid-season market opened. If the Tigers continued to fall because of age and too few minor-league bright lights, Avila would hope a stable of contending teams might turn the trade deadline into a seller’s market.
But as spring gave way to summer and to a shaking out of serious playoff teams, the Tigers were still stuck with “For Sale” signs and few shoppers.
Verlander stood as the biggest prize. The Cubs, the source said, early on the June-July trade timeline had a kick-the-tires conversation with Detroit. Neither the prospects the Cubs might offer, or discussions on how much money the Tigers might absorb on Verlander’s contract, were part of the Cubs-Tigers conversation.
Cubs president Theo Epstein instead set sights on the White Sox, shipping some of his team’s minor-league treasure across town as the Cubs opted for 28-year-old starter Jose Quintana, who has a bargain-priced contract that could keep him at Wrigley Field through 2020.
The Cubs, though, were interested early and throughout July in Wilson and Alex Avila. So, too, were other clubs sizing up a reliever and catcher, particularly Wilson, who was continuing to blow-torch batters as he settled into his closer’s niche.
The take on Verlander
Avila meanwhile was getting nibbles on Martinez, but only from one club, Arizona. The Tigers were boxed-in on Martinez thanks to another wrinkle from last December’s new CBA. Draft-pick compensation had been weakened. A player such as Martinez, ahead of the new contract, would have guaranteed the Tigers a first-round pick (or pick between the first and second rounds) in June’s draft – a handsome insurance policy against losing Martinez to another club.
But now the Tigers were looking at a pick perhaps as deep as the fifth round. And that wasn’t a price Avila was keen on absorbing simply to retain Martinez for another 10 weeks.
The Tigers believed Arizona was moving on when Avila agreed on July 18 to take three infielders: Dawel Lugo, Sergio Alcantara, and Jose King.
Avila listened through July 30 to clubs chasing Wilson and Avila before shaking hands with Epstein on the two Tigers the Cubs had always wanted – Wilson and Alex Avila. The swap sent two more young infielders, Jeimer Candelario and Isaac Paredes, as well as cash or a player to be named later, to Detroit.
That left, principally, Verlander as top Tigers trade material.
Even if his contract was stratospheric, Verlander appeared too irresistible when starting pitching is a playoff team’s staple. The Tigers, the source insists, were willing to pay much, if not all, of Verlander’s remaining money if they could get talent that would make those remaining paychecks digestible.
The Astros seemed plausible. They were running low on starters and a fabulous regular season was perhaps going to be squandered if they didn’t add a starter of Verlander’s might for the playoffs.
But the Astros were neither interested in taking on any of Verlander’s contract, nor, the Tigers came to realize, was Houston eager to deal any of its best farmhands.
Verlander’s part in trade talks has been clear throughout. He is not aching to leave Detroit. But he is itching to pitch again in October and bag a World Series to match his Cy Young and Most Valuable Player trophies. He might also understand that his Hall of Fame credentials will more easily be burnished pitching for a contender than enduring a rebuilding cycle at Comerica Park.
Either way, he was expected to approve a trade to a contender when he has such rights as a player who has been 10 years in the big leagues and five years with a particular team. He remains, at least ostensibly, on the trade block until the Aug. 31 cutoff for traded players to become playoff-eligible with their new teams.
Nothing dramatic expected
Jon Paul Morosi of Fox Sports reported Wednesday that trade chatter concerning Verlander has been nil but that there was industry belief he could yet be part of an 11th-hour deal ahead of Thursday’s deadline.
No other Tigers players appear to be targets, which, the source said, should not surprise Avila.
The Tigers saw July’s market turn ever cooler as July 31 approached. And that appeared to vindicate Avila’s decision to trade Martinez nearly two weeks before the deadline. The Mets, for example, were viewed has having gotten below-retail returns later in July in deals for Lucas Duda, Jay Bruce, and for second baseman Neil Walker, who was dealt to the Brewers for a player to be named later.
Had the Diamondbacks shifted to other trade targets, the source said, the Tigers likely would have had Martinez faithfully playing right field through September, all before losing him to a grand offseason, free-agent deal, with a marginal draft-day pick Detroit’s only compensation.
A few days remain before business essentially closes. But the Tigers aren’t expecting anything dramatic, nor is baseball at-large anticipating any final-hours Richter-scale deals.
The Tigers will try again this autumn and ahead of February’s camp to prune a roster and revive their farm. Some offseason bartering is probably in the cards, perhaps involving one of those once-untouchable young pitchers.
But this isn’t a conventional time for front offices. And look no farther than July’s transactions, or lack thereof, for additional proof.