Published November 11, 2016
They were superstar ball players, forever linked to their respective franchises.
Al Kaline with the Tigers. Ernie Banks, Mr. Cub. Brooks Robinson, always an Oriole.
The list goes on.
Stan Musial, a Cardinal forever. You only need to say “Yaz” and immediately the Red Sox’ iconic “B” logo pops into your head.
Johnny Bench, the Reds.
The list shrinks, however, the more modern you get.
Yes, you had Tony Gwynn with the Padres. Derek Jeter with the Yankees. But these men were exceptions to a new rule.
But in this free agency era, which began in earnest in the mid-1970s, the days of players remaining with the team that drafted them for their entire big league career, have dwindled dramatically.
The Tigers haven’t had such a player since Alan Trammell (1977-96) and Lou Whitaker (1977-95) did their thing. And even they were anomalies.
Yet when you looked at Justin Verlander, you thought that he might be the next “Tiger for life.”
I say “looked” and “thought” purposely.
No more can you look at Verlander, drafted by the Tigers from Old Dominion in 2004 (2nd overall), and say with any assurance that he’ll never wear anything other than the Old English D.
It used to be that way.
Even when he struggled through injuries and surgeries. Even when it looked like his best days were behind him. Despite that, did you really think that Verlander would ever play for another MLB team?
If anything, his struggles seemed to cement the fact that JV would be a Tiger forever, because the further he fell from grace, the less valuable he appeared to be to other teams.
Through it all, Verlander, as much as any pitcher can be, morphed into the player who knew the pulse of the team. No pitcher can truly be the franchise player (my opinion), but someone with Verlander’s pedigree, wit, personality and brains came very close as a Tiger.
When he spoke, you listened—whether it was about his own mechanics and performances or that of the team’s. Even in his own perceived decline.
Then came the resurgent year of 2016, in which Verlander, incredibly, unpredictably, became a Cy Young Award finalist once more.
Now his name is being bandied about in trade talk, along with maybe a half dozen other Tigers stalwarts, as the team appears committed to the payroll slashing that was promised by GM Al Avila in mid-October. Verlander is a desired commodity once again.
Baseball’s Hot Stove League didn’t waste any time heating up. Avila saw to that.
The Cubs’ champagne was still chilled when it was announced that Avila had traded center fielder Cameron Maybin to the Angels for a low-level prospect—right-handed pitcher Victor Alcantara.
It was a salary dump—no more, no less.
More trades are coming. Only, will they be trades as much as they’ll be more dumps?
Verlander will be 34 before next season begins. He is a 10/5 man, which means he can veto any trade, by virtue of being a 10-year big leaguer with five straight years with the same team.
He could simply say no to any proposed trade involving him, and there would be absolutely nothing the Tigers could do about it.
But don’t assume that Verlander would say no, despite his unofficial “Mr. Tiger” designation.
If we’ve learned anything about Verlander, it’s that he craves the spotlight—and I don’t mean with his off-field life, as gregarious as that is.
Verlander has pitched in a lot of big games as a Tiger. His post-season numbers aren’t shabby at all. He hasn’t come up big in the two World Series he’s pitched in, but his teammates have laid eggs in the Fall Classic as well.
The bottom line is that Verlander would start every game of a playoff series if he could. Not just appear in—start. He’s addicted to pressure-packed moments. He’s like Jack Morris that way.
The Los Angeles Dodgers seem to be the team that comes up most often when linked to Verlander trade talk.
This makes sense.
The Dodgers are working on their own World Series drought. They haven’t won it since 1988, and that’s also the last time they were in it.
However, they’ve been knocking on World Series’ door for several years now.
The Dodgers have money. They’re hungry. They need another big arm to pair with Clayton Kershaw. A left-right punch that would have Dodgers fans recalling the days of Koufax and Drysdale.
They also have, according to experts, the required cache of assets that it would take to pry Verlander from the Tigers.
The Dodgers are Hollywood, which is something that Verlander wouldn’t shy away from, either. How can he, when he’s dating a supermodel?
And most importantly, the Dodgers seem set up to be playing in lots more big games in the near future. That alone could convince Verlander to waive his no-trade rights.
Would Justin Verlander rip off his Old English D jersey and slip on the also-iconic Dodgers threads, if it means having a chance to pitch in another World Series, where JV has some unfinished business?
That is the $64,000 question.
Now, there’s no guarantee, of course, that Big Blue will be in the World Series if Verlander joins them. But aren’t their chances greater than a team that is looking to shed payroll like a snake does with its skin?
Does Verlander’s loyalty to the Tigers extend to wanting to play for a team that might be looking to reload? Where he might not sniff a playoff game ever again?
I have a hunch that it wouldn’t. And should it come to that, and should he make the decision to leave, he ought not be vilified.
Branch Rickey, Hall of Fame baseball executive, had a rule.
Always trade a player one year too early than one year too late.
This is ironic when it comes to Verlander.
He’s going to be 34 early next year. How can Rickey’s rule apply to him?
Because there will likely never be a better time to deal Verlander, if you want to flip him for blue chips, than this off-season. How could there be?
Justin Verlander has no interest in pitching the rest of his career with no more chances at the post-season. The pressure of the playoffs is like a narcotic to him.
He could go to Los Angeles, pitch with Kershaw at the top of the Dodgers’ rotation, and almost be assured of pitching in October. Beyond that, who knows?
With the Tigers, the way the team’s approach appears to be, the playoffs might be eliminated as a possibility as early as the All-Star break.
The talk with the Dodgers might be just that—talk.
But it makes a whole lot of sense, at least from LA’s standpoint.
And, dare I say, it makes a lot of sense to no. 35 as well.
Don’t be surprised.