The Detroit Tigers are in a pickle.
They haven’t made the playoffs since 2014, and barring some unforeseen miracle, that’s not happening in 2017, either. They’re eight games under .500 heading into Tuesday’s game, and their core group of aging players isn’t getting any younger (or better, likely).
They’d love to rebuild, but the contracts on the books — Miguel Cabrera, Jordan Zimmermann, Victor Martinez and Justin Upton — are prohibitive to that process. They don’t want to trade young ace Michael Fulmer, who made the All-Star team this year and is still years from arbitration.
That brings us to Justin Verlander. He’s been the face of this franchise for a decade now; he won the AL Cy Young award and MVP in 2011, and he’s helped the Tigers to five playoff appearances, including two World Series trips.
He could be traded; any team would love to add him to their rotation.
It’s not that easy, though. Let’s take a look.
The Verlander trade complications
Let’s start with this: Verlander, 34, is owed a lot of money over the next couple years. He’ll bring in approximately $10 million for the rest of 2017, then he’s guaranteed $28 million next year and $28 million in 2019, too, with a vesting option for $22 million for 2020 that automatically kicks in if he finishes in the top five of the 2019 Cy Young vote.
No team is going to pay his entire salary and give up an elite prospect or two. That’s just not going to happen. So the question is this: Can the Tigers find the right money/prospects balance with any team? More on that in a moment.
A quick, but significant complication: Verlander has complete veto power over any trade, as a player with 10 years of MLB service, including five with his current team. He’d have to approve any deal, which seems likely to happen because it’s doubtful the highly competitive Verlander wants to pitch through the rebuild that is coming soon to Detroit. To agree to wave that veto power, though, he could make demands — such as forcing the other team to guarantee that 2020 option, for example — to allow the trade to go through.
And then there’s this issue: Verlander hasn’t been nearly as good this year as he was in 2016, when he finished a very close second in the AL Cy Young race. It’s not just his ERA that has jumped in the wrong way — from 3.04 to 4.50 — but the peripherals, too: K/9 (from 10.0 to 8.7), BB/9 (from 2.3 to 4.1), H/9 (6.8 to 8.9), WHIP (1.00 to 1.44) and FIP (3.48 to 4.21).
Verlander turns 35 next February, so it makes sense that maybe he’s losing more zip on some of his pitches, and maybe that’s the reason for the downturn. That’s not true, though. Look at his velocity charts on Brooks Baseball. He’s actually throwing harder in 2017 than he was last year — his fastball is at 95.65 mph, up from 94.33, and that increase holds across the board.
He’s had a couple disaster starts this year, but overall his production has been solid. He’s lasted at least seven innings in nine of his 21 starts this season, and he has a 2.77 ERA over his four most recent starts. The “quality start” stat (at least six innings pitched, three or fewer earned runs allowed) is admittedly flawed, but Verlander has 12 of those this season.
Anyway, back to the balance thing. If the Tigers offer to pay for $40 million of the roughly $66 million Verlander is owed from now through the end of 2019, they would likely be offered a very nice package of prospects. It’s highly doubtful they’d throw that much cash out there, though.
If Detroit offers to pay only $20 million of the roughly $66 million he’s guaranteed, the prospect return drops a couple notches. And if Detroit offers to pay next to nothing? It would get a paltry return, and basically dumping a franchise hero to save salary wouldn’t sit well with a long-frustrated fan base. The Tigers can’t allow that to happen.
One more thing that’s worth noting: Because Verlander is owed so much money, the July 31 non-waiver trade deadline doesn’t mean much for him and Detroit. He would sail through waivers, which would give the Tigers the opportunity to trade him through August 31 (the deadline for players to be eligible for the postseason with their new team). And they could wait until the offseason to make a move, too.
So, yeah, it’s complicated. Next up, let’s look at the MLB teams rumored to be interested in a Verlander trade.
The Verlander trade options
Why he fits: It’s World Series-or-bust for the Dodgers, and adding a veteran like Verlander to a playoff rotation that’s seriously lacking in playoff experience/success behind ace Clayton Kershaw figures to bolster their chances of at least getting to the championship for the first time since 1998. Verlander has been kind of hit-or-miss in the postseason; for example, he had a 5.31 ERA in 20 1/3 innings in the 2011 playoffs but a 0.39 ERA in 23 innings during the 2013 playoffs. Of his past eight playoff starts, though, Verlander has thrown at least seven innings while allowing zero or one runs six times. The Dodgers would love that.
Why he fits: They’ve already made the move for lefty Jose Quintana, but that doesn’t preclude them from landing another starter to add to the rotation — they were connected to Sonny Gray in the hours and days after that Quintana trade happened. If the Cubs trade for Verlander, it would be for 2018 and 2019 as much as anything. Jake Arrieta and John Lackey are free-agents after the season, which means the Cubs have an opening — though it might be Lackey that Verlander replaces in the 2017 rotation, if this deal happens.
Why he fits: It’s World Series-or-bust for the Astros, and adding a veteran like Verlander to a playoff rotation that’s seriously lacking in playoff experience/success behind ace Dallas Keuchel figures to bolster their chances of winning the first World Series in franchise history. Yep, a similar storyline to the Dodgers. At this point, though, the Astros feel like a bit of a longshot. Their reported attention has been focused on the A’s right-hander Sonny Gray.
Why he fits: The Yankees have missed the playoffs two years in a row, and Verlander would, in theory, breathe life into that rotation and help make a second-half push. And Verlander feels like the type of personality who would thrive in the big lights of that big city.
Why he fits: Yes, this is another longshot. It was a longshot even before the Brewers stumbled out of the gate in the second half and were caught by the Cubs in the NL Centra. Verlander would absolutely add to Milwaukee’s playoff chances this year and the next two years, but Detroit would have to kick in so much money for the small-market Brewers — who do have ample prospects in the system — to make this palatable. Just don’t see that happening.
Why he fits: The Braves turned to a couple of veteran pitchers to anchor their rotation this season; R.A. Dickey has been solid, but they had to release a struggling Bartolo Colon. Atlanta has been pointing to legitimate contention in 2018 for a while now, and adding Verlander to the rotation mix would be a veteran boost. The Braves have a ton of promising pitchers in their organization, the type of pitchers who would interest the Tigers very much. They’re a dark horse.