This has to be a game of chicken. The Tigers have the best available pitcher in the game on their roster. He’s been placed on revocable trade waivers. Multiple teams could sorely use a pitcher of Justin Verlander’s caliber, especially with the big right-hander thriving lately (22 strikeouts and a 0.86 ERA over his past three starts, covering 21 innings). There’s no logical way to read the current situation other than one: the Tigers are trying to acquire as many quality prospects for Verlander while also shedding tons of payroll, and pitching-needy teams are trying to surrender as little talent as possible and avoid assuming the entire financial burden of Verlander’s contract.
It’s worth asking how onerous that contract truly is, though. Counting the pro-rated portion of his 2017 salary, Verlander’s owed slightly less than $64 million guaranteed through the end of 2019; he’d earn a $22 million vesting option the following season if he finishes top-five in AL Cy Young voting during that 2019 campaign. Pore over this list of pending pitcher free agents—who’s out there who’s better than Verlander? And why would teams want to spend what might be multiple more years and a lot more dollars for pitchers with inferior pedigrees?
That’s not to say that a trade is all that easy, of course. Verlander struggled for much of this season before picking up the pace lately, and that’s got interested teams worried that his Cy Young-worthy 2016 season might’ve been a last hurrah before a steep mid-to-late-30s decline. Wildly successful teams like last year’s Cubs and this year’s Dodgers have also shown how vital elite, homegrown talent is, and giving up one or more potential stars always carries risk, even when the return is a pitcher as potentially dominant as Verlander.
Still, there should be a happy medium here. Even with the AL wild-card race as muddled as it is, the Tigers aren’t making the playoff this year. With a roster (and minor league system) that’s light on impact talent, it’s tough to imagine them making deep playoff runs in 2018 or 2019 either. Meanwhile, Verlander could be a major difference maker for a contending team, both now and through the end of the decade. A properly negotiated trade, with legitimate assets coming to Detroit in exchange for the excellence that Verlander is finally showing again, makes too much sense for it not to happen.