The Justin Verlander Trade Confirms the Tigers Are in for a Long, Painful Rebuild

The trades of Justin Verlander, Justin Upton and J.D. Martinez prove that the glory days of Tigers baseball are behind them and that the rebuild is on.
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The words “Astros pitcher Justin Verlander” look strange to any baseball fan in the state of Michigan, as strange as “diet pepperoni pizza,” if not quite as strange as “the Lightning’s Steve Yzerman,” and that’s the part that gets lost in the instant analysis of the Detroit Tigers’ big trade. There are thousands of kids around Detroit who woke up this morning and learned that their No. 35 Tigers jerseys are obsolete.   Verlander was an icon, and trading icons stinks, even if it’s the right move.

But trading Verlander was the right move, either now or next winter. And the worst part of this big deal is how little it really means. Sure, the Tigers got some prospects from Houston, including highly regarded pitching prospect Franklin Perez, but they still don’t have enough prospects that will make a difference if they become big leaguers. They cleared a lot of payroll Thursday by trading Verlander (due $56 million over the next two years) and Justin Upton (though Upton would have surely opted out of his deal this winter), but they can’t spend their way to contention any more, and I doubt their owner even wants to try.

The Tigers are bad and are on a nonstop flight to worse. Their minor-league system is widely considered one of the worst in the majors. They don’t have the one star under a bargain contract, like Chris Sale or even Andrew Miller recently, who can fetch prime prospects—Verlander is still good enough to dominate in October, but his contract is no bargain, and he has had an inconsistent year, which limited the haul from this deal.

There is only one way out of this mess, and it’s the long way. The Tigers must do all sorts of things that they haven’t done in 12 years. They need to focus on three years from now. They need to draft better than other teams, then hold onto the prospects. They need to find bargains on the free-agent market who can turn into trade chips down the line. They need to make savvy moves in the international market. And they need to trade everybody who gets good enough to trade until the team is competitive again. They need to take a picture of Michael Fulmer’s stat line, post it on Baseball Executive Tinder and hope somebody swipes right.

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I’m a solid two years late on that Tinder joke, but that’s probably fitting, because the Tigers are also late to rebuilding. That’s why they face a massive rebuild while the St. Louis Cardinals continually retool. The Cardinals let Albert Pujols and Jason Heyward leave as free agents for enormous, ill-advised contracts. The Tigers signed Miguel Cabrera—their Pujols—to an insane $248 million extension when he had two years left on his deal. The Tigers will be paying the price for that excess, literally and figuratively, for most of the next decade.

We will get to that in a moment. First, on Fulmer, the potential ace who was the A.L. 2016 Rookie of the Year:

Fulmer is in his second full season, so theoretically, he is the kind of player that you build around. The problem is that even his career timeline doesn’t match up with the Tigers’. Fulmer has one more year under team control for pennies, then hits arbitration, where his salary will rise for four years if he pitches well. The Tigers would need a miracle to contend in the next two years, and even 2020 is unlikely.

Fulmer’s cheapest years do nothing for them—they will stink with or without him. Meanwhile, his trade value is more likely to go down than up. He could blow out his arm. He could fail to develop into an ace. And even if he pitches exceptionally well, he gets closer to free agency every year that they keep him.

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Fulmer is far more valuable to a current contender that wants a young, controllable starter than he is to the Tigers. They should do everything they can to trade him this winter for a prospect haul.

The Tigers need to go all-in on a rebuild like their division counterparts in Chicago. There has been a lot of talk about how the White Sox finally committed to a full rebuild, but their philosophical shift was nothing compared to what the Tigers need to do. For years under owner Mike Ilitch, they spent to win now, sometimes illogically but always with the best of intentions: to win.

Good intentions were at the heart of Cabrera’s eight-year, $248-million extension. Cabrera is a lock for the Hall of Fame, a tremendous competitor and teammate, a frequently delightful guy and as tough as they come. He is a legend in Detroit. But committing that much money to a player who was 33 when his contract started was just not smart, and the Tigers finding out now what most of us figured out then.

Cabrera’s slash line this year is .252/.338/.405. The Tigers owe him $184 million. I don’t think Cabrera is finished. The great ones often find ways to squeeze more excellence out of themselves when we don’t expect it. Tim Duncan did it. David Ortiz did, too. Cabrera may have a healthy, All-Star-quality year or two left in him. (The Tigers should move him to designated hitter, where he is more likely to stay healthy and at least has a chance for an Ortiz-like finish to his career. But Cabrera has always resisted being a full-time DH. He would play 15 innings a day if he could.)

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Cabrera’s contract was always going to be an albatross. You could see it the moment the Tigers signed him. But owner Mike Ilitch didn’t see it or didn’t care—the Tigers were used to spending big and winning big, and Ilitch had no interest in stopping. All he wanted was to win the World Series. He died trying, and there is something admirable in that.

It is a shame that so many people will remember this generation of Tigers’ teams for their failure to win it all—an understandable shame, but a shame nonetheless. They were one of the great franchise revival stories anywhere. From 1994 to 2005, they had 12 straight losing seasons. They lost at least 106 games three times, and went a mind-boggling 43–119 in 2003. Those 2003 Tigers were so awful that more of them finished with a negative WAR than a positive WAR; the average Tiger was worse than a Triple-A replacement.

The Tigers of that era were not just bad. They seemed hopeless. Then came the stunning 2006 run to the World Series, which looked like a fluke but wasn’t. The Tigers were in contention into September for seven of the next nine years. They won four A.L. Central titles. There were many nights when they had Verlander on the mound and Cabrera batting third and wouldn’t have traded either for anybody.

The era should be remembered that way. Verlander and Cabrera should be remembered as Detroit icons. But being an icon doesn’t count in the standings. Cabrera’s career numbers won’t help Jordan Zimmerman get anybody out.

This is the reality that Tigers general manager Al Avila must face: Every other team in the American League Central has a brighter future than his team. The Tigers aren’t back where they were in 2003, but they will be bad for a while. It would not stun me if Chris Ilitch eventually puts the team on the market, but even if he keeps it, this much is clear: the era of the spend-’til-you-drop Tigers is over. The bill is finally due. Paying it off will take years.