Detroit sports fans — Tigers fans especially — like to honor those who put in their time. Al Kaline. Alan Trammell. Ernie Harwell. They’re heroes here not only for their talents, but their longevity.
Now, it’s Justin Verlander’s turn. The Tigers’ ace, who came out of their farm system in 2005, would likely have played his whole career here, had the front office not traded him to Houston around midnight Thursday.
This was after shipping Justin Upton out of town earlier in the day, Justin Wilson and Alex Avila earlier in the month, and J.D. Martinez the month before that – all fetching only prospects in return.
Verlander received the hosannas due him. That’s how we do it here. All talk of erratic excellence vanished. His poor first half was forgotten. Any mention of ill-advised tweets disappeared. He was a warrior, he was our guy, heck, he’s still our guy, now playing for someone else’s team. He’ll remember us when his Hall of Fame induction comes around. (We hope.)
Meanwhile, the 2017 Detroit baseball fan is wondering who the Tigers are right now.
It’s easier to answer what they are.
Shovels out for new foundation
It’s not an accident that Verlander was owed $56 million for the next two seasons, Upton was due $88.5 million for four more years, and Martinez would have commanded big bucks to stay as a free agent (say $18 million a year conservatively.)
Right there, on paper, is a $68 million savings off next year’s roster. Nothing accidental about that.
It’s also no accident that this clear shift to Total Rebuild Mode is taking place after the sad passing of Mike Ilitch, who so wanted a World Series ring – as did all those around him – that financial prudency was a back burner item.
Remember when Al Avila said it was Ilitch who pushed him to sign Upton to a $132 million contract because he wanted “more than a tweak” in the lineup?
Not anymore. Chris Ilitch is a smart businessman and Avila has a new blueprint more suited to his previous specialty, scouting. The shovels are out. The old team has been unearthed, and a new foundation is being dug.
“Next year may not be all that pretty,” Avila told the media Friday.
Anyone who doubts this need only read the letter the Tigers sent to season ticket holders last week, an unusual move meant to reassure the customers and make them embrace rebuilding, while gently encouraging them to stand pat (or, more bluntly, to not take their money elsewhere) now that Miguel Cabrera is the only bona fide star left in the Detroit lineup.
Tigers had talent but no winning hand
Speaking of Cabrera, one wonders how long he will put up with this. The front office may have the patience for a rebuild, but a 34 year-old who is clinging to a reputation as the best right-handed hitter in baseball cannot enjoy reading these tea leaves. By the time the Tigers are ready to compete at a championship level, he may not be.
For the moment, he hasn’t complained (he has six years left on a massive contract worth around $31 million a season) but you need only look across the sports highway at the NBA where star players regularly force trades to improve their post-season chances – and many of them are in their 20s.
Cabrera knows what’s coming won’t be fun. Fans should know it, too. Yes, it will be different. There’ll be a lot of “Hey, that guy might turn out to be something” instead of “Hey, when’s that guy gonna be what we paid for?” There is something weighty about expensive free agents; at best, they deliver what’s expected. At worst, they get your hopes up, then disappoint.
Still, the Tigers shipped off three former All-Stars (Verlander, Martinez, Upton) mostly for kids who have never played a major league inning. You want to trust their judgment of talent, but if that judgment had been good enough, they’d have developed their own crop instead of needing to import someone else’s.
Make no mistake. Over the last decade, the Tigers held a lot of cards and could not lay down a winning hand. Only one team in baseball had four past or future Cy Young winners on its roster in 2014 (Verlander, Max Scherzer, David Price, Rick Porcello) and couldn’t win a playoff game.
Now all those pitchers are gone, and the team hasn’t seen a post-season since. That’s a blemish. No matter how we honor Verlander, no matter how many stories we frame about flood-ravaged Houston getting a boost from his arrival.
The fact is, he’ll be pitching in the playoffs next month and Detroiters will be watching, with little hope in sight. That’s not fun. After all, the best part of being a fan shouldn’t be how fondly you recall players who go elsewhere.
Contact Mitch Albom: firstname.lastname@example.org. Check out the latest updates with his charities, books and events at mitchalbom.com. Catch “The Mitch Albom Show” 5-7 p.m. weekdays on WJR-AM (760). Follow him on Twitter @mitchalbom. To read his recent columns, go to freep.com/sports/mitch-albom.