It made too much sense. When reports surfaced late Thursday night that the Tigers would trade ace Justin Verlander to the Astros, the general reaction was one of inevitability. Frankly, it was surprising it had taken this long—until the Dodgers grabbed Yu Darvish from the Rangers with minutes to go before the non-waiver trade deadline, a Verlander trade seemed to be the clear pending blockbuster. The best righthanded pitcher of his generation, a 34-year-old who had done just about everything there is to do in the sport except win a World Series, now toiled for a sub-.500 team. The split would be uncomfortable, for sure; Verlander had been with the organization since it drafted him in the first round in 2004, and he is among the most beloved athletes in Detroit and the most respected leaders in his own clubhouse. But the divorce was clearly imminent. Fans kept an eye out during games for telltale dugout hugs from teammates; the speculation grew so intense that Verlander began tracking his own location, tweeting a photo of himself standing in front of his locker on the road to prove he remained with the team.
But then the winds shifted: The trade was off. Verlander had exercised his no-trade clause … or the Astros had gotten cold feet … or a mystery team had surfaced … or maybe they’d never been that far along at all. This seemed impossible. Detroit will not be competitive until long after Verlander’s seven-year deal, signed in 2013, expires. After a Hall of Fame peak—his 30.7 WAR from ’09 through ’13 matched Clayton Kershaw’s for best in the sport—it has become clear that Verlander’s best days are behind him. One way or another, he would not win a title with the Tigers. Houston is the best team in the American League, the second-most likely club to raise the trophy, but its rotation has been a weakness this year. What could possibly be the problem?
And then, at last, at one minute to midnight, as the seconds ticked down on the waiver trade deadline, they finalized the paperwork. Verlander—and reportedly $16 million, to help cover the $56 million he is guaranteed the next two seasons—would go to Houston for three of its top 11 prospects.
It will be hard to challenge the Indians for strongest rotation in the league, but the acquisition immediately vaults the Astros past the Red Sox for second best. Verlander has shown signs of weakness over the last four years, but he has stabilized in the second half each of the last two years. He had a 2.36 ERA in August this year. He is durable and has extensive postseason experience—he made the playoffs five times with the Tigers, including two World Series—and will likely slot in behind lefthander Dallas Keuchel to form one of the most formidable pairs in October. Houston already has the best offense in the game; now it can also lighten the load on a taxed bullpen and fragile back of the rotation.
Detroit’s incomplete rebuild continues. The return from the deal—righthander Franklin Perez, outfielder Daz Cameron and catcher Jake Rogers—will help bolster one of the worst farm systems in the game. If GM Alex Avila commits to a full teardown, the future could be bright. In the meantime, the Tigers will watch the postseason from home this year, but you can bet they’ll be rooting for the Astros.