How new HOFers Mariano Rivera, Roy Halladay almost were Tigers

Tony Paul
The Detroit News
New York Yankees pitcher Mariano Rivera is baseball's all-time saves leader with 652.

In Detroit and throughout the state of Michigan, the debate rages on over whether the Tigers' trading of John Smoltz for Doyle Alexander in 1987 was a prudent move.

On one hand, Alexander went 9-0 as the Tigers stormed to the American League East championship on the last day of the regular season. On the other, Smoltz, the Lansing native, went on to a Hall of Fame career with the Atlanta Braves.

On the surface, it was a short-term win for the Tigers and a long-term win for the Braves. What's rarely acknowledged, though, is that Smoltz probably wouldn't have become a Hall-of-Famer with the Tigers.

Even on the eve of his induction in 2015, he admitted as much to The News.

"That was the most significant game-changer for me," he said of the trade.

Well, here we are again, celebrating a whole new class of Baseball Hall-of-Famers — and while there are no Tigers or former Tigers in the bunch, there were a couple of almost-Tigers who made the cut in Tuesday night's announcement.

Legendary New York Yankees closer Mariano Rivera and longtime Toronto Blue Jays and Philadelphia Phillies ace Roy Halladay are part of a four-person class elected by the baseball writers, who also voted in Seattle Mariners slugger Edgar Martinez and former Orioles and Yankees pitcher Mike Mussina.

Quickly, here's the back story on Rivera and Halladay.

Rivera was signed as a 20-year-old out of Panama in 1990, and by 1995 he had made his way to the big leagues — but as a starter, which was all he did in the minor leagues from 1992-94. He was an athletic kid, with a mid-90s fastball but not much else in his repertoire.

The Yankees found themselves in the hunt in the AL East in the strike-shortened 1995 season, and then-general manager Gene Michael went shopping for a starting pitcher. His target was left-hander David Wells, then in his third season with the Tigers. Detroit had strong interest in Rivera, and New York listened to the offer, but ultimately decided to hold on to the right-hander.

The Yankees, instead, traded for Blue Jays right-hander David Cone, and three days later the Tigers sent Wells to the Cincinnati Reds for a package that included a left-handed reliever named C.J. Nitkowski — who went on to pitch in 213 games over two stints (five seasons) with the Tigers, posting ERAs of 7.09, 8.08, 4.30, 5.25 and 5.56.

Interestingly, Wells would sign with the Yankees anyway two years later, and both he and Cone would go on to pitch perfect games in the Bronx — while Rivera, of course, would eventually become a closer riding one good pitch, that epic cut fastball, to five World Series championships and a plaque in Cooperstown.

"Nobody ever could have foreseen him doing all of this," Michael told the New York Daily News in 2009, explaining he kept Rivera because of his command and velocity. "And really with just one pitch."

That Rivera story is more well-known than the what-if on Halladay, who already was well into the prime of his career when the Tigers, chasing an AL Central title in the summer of 2009, went shopping for starting-pitching help.

Halladay, then 32, was put on the block by the Blue Jays — who, as The Detroit News' Lynn Henning reported back then, initiated a call with the Tigers.

Former Blue Jays ace Roy Halladay nearly was traded to the Tigers in 2009, before being dealt the the Philadelphia Phillies.

The asking price was, at least at the time, considered steep: Toronto wanted two young rookie right-handers, Rick Porcello and Ryan Perry, both former first-round picks, as well as an up-and-coming left-hander named Casey Crosby. Then-Tigers general manager Dave Dombrowski found the ask enormously high, said no and eventually traded for Seattle Mariners left-hander Jarrod Washburn.

Washburn was a disaster for the Tigers, with a 7.33 ERA in eight starts for Detroit, which amazingly still won half of the games he started — but lost the division in a Game 163 showdown with the Minnesota Twins. Porcello has gone on to a nice career, albeit more highly decorated with the Boston Red Sox, while Perry and Crosby were big-time busts.

The Blue Jays, meanwhile, traded Halladay to the Philadelphia Phillies in the offseason for three other highly touted prospects. Only one, slugging catcher Travis d'Arnaud, ever panned out, and not until he was with the New York Mets.

Halladay went on to win 21 games and the Cy Young Award — while throwing a perfect game and no-hitter for the Phillies in 2010, and had another good season in 2011 before things started winding down on his eventual Hall-of-Fame career following that season.

Halladay, who died tragically in a plane crash in 2017, almost certainly would've been a Hall-of-Famer, regardless of whether he ever spent a day in a Tigers uniform.

Rivera, meanwhile, probably still thanks his lucky stars the Tigers didn't get their man — much like Smoltz is eternally grateful they did.

Twitter: @tonypaul1984