HOUSTON – One of the best trade-deadline deals of all-time — maybe the best — really did come down to the final two seconds, Justin Verlander confirmed yesterday. And, Houston Astros owner Jim Crane recalled that it really did take quite a bit of preparation – and salesmanship – to convince Verlander to waive his no-trade at the time, and make that historic deal two seconds before midnight on Aug. 31.
Today, with the Astros in the World Series, and Verlander the hero for the moment, with his 9-0 record as an Astro with a 1.53 ERA between the regular season and postseason, it seems like an easy call. But you have to remember that Verlander was an icon in Detroit, a legend likely headed to the Hall of Fame as a Tiger, and his top two choices all along were the Dodgers and Cubs.
He’d been hoping for the Dodgers, who really only tried hard over the winter, and the Cubs, who were concerned about the next two years and the $56 million commitment over those two years, and ultimately didn’t have the prospects to make a deal, anyway. He’d been hearing about the Astros for several weeks, so he had some time to think. But he still wasn’t sure what to do.
Verlander loves Detroit, he and his fiancée, model Kate Upton, have a home in Los Angeles, and the Cubs are a draw for everyone these days. But in the end, it came down to staying in his beloved Detroit, or going to Houston, which still wasn’t foremost in his mind.
So Crane had to do some selling.
The Astros’ owner recruited manager A.J. Hinch to do some selling, and ace pitcher Dallas Keuchel, as well. Crane was sympathetic to the decision. Houston was a strange town to him, and it had just been flooded by three days of non-stop rain that came with Hurricane Harvey. On TV, it looked like a mess, which was all the more reason for Crane and the Astros to make it happen.
“(Verlander) was concerned about the town and his family. It was a hard decision to make on the fly,” Crane said.
To help nudge him, he called on Keuchel, who had been at the forefront of the clubhouse criticism when the Astros failed to make any significant moves at the non-waiver deadline of July 31. It was a great stratagem; not only did it give Keuchel the chance to see that trade-making isn’t so easy, it gave Verlander a chance to get to know the man who would be his co-ace. A little push couldn’t hurt.
“We had been trying all along,” Crane said. “And now we had him in our sights.”
Crane said Verlander was the guy they wanted all along. They’d come close to a trade for Zack Britton, which was called off by the Orioles, either due to medicals of others in the trade or Orioles owner Peter Angelos’ well-known cold feet.
The Astros had plenty of reasons to want to make a trade. They needed a veteran for the rotation. They’d heard criticism from their own clubhouse (never mind the media) that their owner wouldn’t loosen his purse strings and that GM Jeff Luhnow was too tied to his prospects. And the area needed something uplifting after being hit by Hurricane Harvey.
They talked about several different pitchers, including Yu Darvish, who went to the Dodgers on July 31 and whom the Astros demolished early in Game 3 of the World Series here. But Verlander was the guy they wanted most.
“He was always the first choice to put another arm in the rotation,” Crane recalled.
The sides never got close at the first deadline, and there were starts and stops throughout August. At some point there was hope. At other points, the sides had given up.
But hopes were raised when the Tigers started their dealing early Aug. 31. The deal that sent Justin Upton to the Angels put the thought in the mind of the Houston guys that something could happen.
“When the Upton deal went down, that signaled that Detroit was ready to do something different,” Crane recalled. “Jeff finally got the players right. He told me they were still apart on the money.”
That’s when Crane uttered the deal-making words, “Let’s close the gap.”
And so they did, The Astros offered to pay $20 million of Verlander’s $28 million salary next year and the year after. And that was it. The Tigers would get pitching prospect Franklin Perez, outfield prospect Daz Cameron and catching prospect Jake Rogers, and the Astros got Verlander and a bit of cash.
Fortunately, both teams were prepared. Crane, Luhnow and Keuchel did their sales job. And Tigers GM Al Avila had emissaries waiting by Verlander’s residence to take care of the paperwork
The deal was done sometime in the 11:50 minute, inspiring the idea that it was Minute Maid. You could also say it was done Justin time.