There are easy decisions for Detroit Tigers general manager Al Avila — like playing the long game between now and the trade deadline — and then there is the decision on Justin Verlander.
And after Sunday afternoon’s seriously bad performance against the Cleveland Indians, the veteran ace right-hander’s future in Detroit remains up in the air.
Verlander was the Tigers’ chic trade deadline pick last week, his value explored by Yahoo’s Jeff Passan with a number of other rumblings from national writers. And while other players like J.D. Martinez, Justin Wilson and Alex Avila are certainly safer bets to get moved by the July 31 trade deadline, Verlander represents the most sensitive situation for Avila.
“I’d say they’re in the background,” Verlander said about the trade rumors. “My focus is here and now, if there’s a decision to be made, then Al and I will talk about it. I’m not thinking about anything other than pitching and playing for the Detroit Tigers until — or if — anything happens.”
Though the Tigers could get the biggest return by trading Verlander, they also could be forced into trading him for less than his full value. Sunday’s start represented just that: Against the Indians, he looked the part of a pitcher that isn’t worth trading away a top prospect (at least) while taking on a lucrative contract for the next couple seasons.
Verlander still has a handful of starts before the trade deadline, but hiccups like Sunday's won’t help the Tigers, who will have to guard against getting too sell-happy. With a 4.96 ERA and 1.52 WHIP in 17 games this season, he’s clearly not the Verlander from last season, when he was robbed of the American League Cy Young Award.
There are many reasons for this, the least of which revolves around his stuff: His often-tweaked mechanics have not gelled for an extended period of time and his insistence on putting up strong strikeout numbers have allowed opponents to elevate his pitch count and prevent him from pitching deep in games.
Verlander has 92 strikeouts in 98 innings. Barring injury, he is going to throw 200 innings for the 10th time in 12 full seasons in the major leagues and still fits the profile of a front-line pitcher. But the Tigers do not hold much leverage in negotiations: Verlander is owed $56 million for the next two seasons with a $22-million vesting option for 2020 if he finishes in the top five in Cy Young voting the previous year.
That will prove to be the biggest hurdle in a Verlander trade, though the contract doesn’t loom as large as it did last off-season, with only two years remaining. Verlander, 34, has shown the ability to adapt his stuff with age. It’s likely he needs to take the next step to stay on a future Hall of Fame path. This is a proven veteran pitcher who has pitched in the postseason and knows how to win. There’s no question there is a market for his services, which only should grow as the pre-deadline days wear on.