News leaked just about the same time on an evening early in July 2006 that Steve Yzerman would be retiring from the Red Wings and that Ben Wallace would be leaving the Pistons to sign with the Chicago Bulls, leaving Detroit without two of its heroes that had brought championships to the city. In a way, it felt like the city’s version of “the day the music died.”
You’d almost think that history was repeating itself if you entered social media’s echo chamber and read posts from Detroit Tigers fans, but there are some isolated voices of reason.
The impetus for distress is the pair of moves the organization made prior to Major League Baseball’s waiver deadline of Sept. 1. Basically, it requires that players must be moved by that date if they are to contribute in the playoffs for their new club. Tigers general manager Al Aliva elected to give two of the club’s best players a chance to play in October by moving both outfielder Justin Upton and starting pitcher Justin Verlander to the Houston Astros and Anaheim Angels, respectively.
The departure of Upton sent ripples, but considering how poorly he performed in 2016 upon arriving, and how he started 2017, he hadn’t exactly endeared himself to the fan base despite turning things around — his offensive WAR this year (4.0) is the highest it’s been since 2011, when he helped lead the Diamondbacks to the postseason.
Verlander, of course, is a different story. The second overall pick in 2004 out of Old Dominion, he’s optimized the era during which the franchise made a comeback after the years of mediocrity that at times rivaled the Lions. Since his 2006 campaign where he was named AL Rookie of the Year and the Tigers nearly (and should have) beat out the Cardinals in the World Series, the team has only endured two losing seasons in 2008 and 2015. He was a workhorse, leading the league in pitches thrown several times, all while tossing two no-hitters and putting together a dominant 2011 that saw him become just one of 24 pitchers to win the MVP Award. He will enter the pantheon of most talented and beloved athletes to play in Detroit who have never won a championship, right alongside Barry Sanders, and to lesser extents, Megatron and Miggy.
His most recent deal, for seven years and $180 million, had been holding up pretty well, too. Save for a 2014 that was marred by a higher ERA (a little inflated) and some TMZ appearances, Verlander was earning the money being paid to him as he reached his mid-30s. It had simply turned into what others weren’t doing. Despite Mike Illich’s spending that rivaled a national defense budget, re-signing Verlander meant letting go of Max Scherzer, who could be on his way to a second-consecutive NL Cy Young this year. Along the way, former GM Dave Dombrowski emptied the farm system with the team in win-now mode, and two of the biggest acquisitions under his watch, Victor Martinez and Anibal Sanchez, have been hurt or largely ineffective the past several seasons.
With the aforementioned pair eating up over $30 million in salary per season, and the Upton-Verlander duo eating up another $50 mil, there will be plenty of talk of whether Chris Illitch is cutting payroll, though he’s come out on record as saying he loves the franchise as much as his dad, and there’s no mandate to do so.
Still, the Tigers were fighting an uphill battle even if they kept the roster intact. Perhaps the Royals, who’ve sat on the AL Central’s version of the Iron Throne the last few years, have the dimmest hope going forward with a majority of their nucleus headed toward free agency, not to mention the unfortunate passing of starter Yordano Ventura. But the Indians aren’t going anywhere, the Twins have turned the corner, and the White Sox have arguably the best minor league talent in all of baseball.
After the trio of major moves the Tigers have made in the past month, their path to the playoffs in a handful of years could be much brighter. Rather than remain in divisional purgatory, moving J.D. Martinez, even if the return haul wasn’t overwhelming, was the first step to reloading the farm system. Grayson Long came back in the Upton deal, and rated the No. 9 player in the Angels farm system by MLB Pipeline, seems to project as a middle-of-the-rotation righty who can eat up innings. The Verlander return, though, really boosted the system, with 19-year-old RHP Franklin Perez already slotting in as the Tigers’ top prospect. Daz Cameron, son of former All-Star Mike, is ranked No. 6 and looks to be a good fielder in the vein of pops. Jake Rogers is ranked just two spots behind him, a catcher who, according to MLB.com, scouts considered as “the best defender at any position in the 2016 Draft.”
It won’t be the last of tough decisions to make for Avila, but Tigers fans can mourn the loss of a franchise favorite for now, but know that his value helped ensure that the trek back to contention should be easier.