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Inside Baseball | Tigers did well with trades despite tough spot

Jon Heyman



MINNEAPOLIS, MN - JULY 22: Detroit Tigers Starting pitcher Justin Verlander (35) looks on from the dugout during a MLB game between the Minnesota Twins and Detroit Tigers on July 22, 2017 at Target Field in Minneapolis, MN. The Twins defeated the Tigers 6-5. (Photo by Nick Wosika/Icon Sportswire)
(Photo by Nick Wosika/Icon Sportswire)

A scout who just went through Detroit and witnessed the rubble that’s left from the start of the remake says, “Their rebuild is going to be lo-o-o-o-ng.” (He dragged out the word as if to emphasize.)

Indeed, the Tigers’ rotation stood at the time as: Anibal Sanchez, Matt Boyd, Buck Farmer, Chad Bell and Artie Lewicki. But that was before Sanchez, the unlikeliest of all aces, left his next start with injury after five pitches.

As he said, lo-o-o-o-ng.

No matter, the Tigers did absolutely the right thing with their big second deadline sale, sending excellent righty power bat Justin Upton to the Los Angeles Angels, then topping off their biggest trade day since they acquired future Hall of Famer Miguel Cabrera for virtually nothing (apologies to Andrew Miller, who became a big star after leaving the Marlins) by shipping the iconic ace Justin Verlander to the Houston Astros. And the Tigers’ future looks much brighter for it, even if they’ll have to endure plenty of growing pains in the short-term.

Inside Baseball | American League Notes

As I said on twitter, that second trade of their long-time ace was Minute Made, as it was finalized at 11:59 EST, one minute before the deadline. No small thing, that timely deal also kicked off the post-Verlander era.

Say what you want – and one rival GM called the Verlander package “underwhelming” – but under the circumstances, and with nowhere else to turn, Detroit’s deal was not only very good, but necessary.

“Given Verlander’s contract, his complete no-trade and the complications of such a deal, I give them a lot of credit for extracting what they could from a team that just doesn’t give up prospects,” yet another rival executive said of the Tigers.

The key, in the end, was pitching prospect Franklin Perez, who had been held out of the Astros’ other big-ticket talks for Jose Quintana, Sonny Gray and Zach Britton. The key also was Tigers GM Al Avila’s attention to detail. Knowing they were up against the deadline, Avila sent two baseball ops people over to Verlander’s apartment in Detroit to be in position to get a quick signature to waive his no-trade rights, if needed.

By Aug. 31, the Astros are believed to have had no other great choice to seriously upgrade a talented-but-young and fragile rotation. But clearly at this point, the Tigers had no other real options, either. The Cubs were the only other team believed to be playing late for Verlander, and while the Theo Epstein-Jed Hoyer team certainly had the moxie and creativity to pull off such a blockbuster, they simply didn’t have the prospects.

“They’d already shot their bullets,” said one Tigers person of the Cubs, who didn’t have to mention that third base prospect Jeimer Candelario had already gone from the Cubs to Detroit in the deal for Justin Wilson and Alex Avila, the son of the Tigers’ GM.

Detroit Tigers pitcher Justin Verlander tips his cap the crowd after the final out in the eighth inning of an interleague baseball game against the Pittsburgh Pirates in Detroit, Wednesday, Aug. 9, 2017. (AP Photo/Paul Sancya)

(AP Photo/Paul Sancya)

So the Tigers really had only one realistic place to send Verlander. And for most of the day and night, they didn’t know for sure whether the Astros would part with one of their precious top-tier prospects or even whether Verlander – who has full no-trade rights by virtue of being a 10-5 player – would accept a deal to the Astros.

The Tigers kept in constant contact with Verlander in the days leading up to the second deadline, and they strongly believed he’d go to the Cubs (and Dodgers, Yankees and Red Sox, who weren’t involved) but apparently weren’t 100 percent sure he’d accept Houston. And someone close to Verlander thought there were only “three to four” teams he’d approve – though in the end, given approximately one hour to make his decision, Verlander had only a binary choice; ultimately, he opted to go for October, as a great player like him should, and happily joined the Astros.

Still, the uncertainty surrounding the no-trade is why a Tigers person told FanRag Sports late in the afternoon on deadline day that a trade was “possible, but not probable.”

Things certainly took a giant step forward when the Astros called Avila at 10:30 p.m. and finally relented on Perez, which startled some folks close to him. A close friend of Perez at first didn’t believe he was in the deal. (The friend wasn’t necessarily disappointed, as Perez will likely get an earlier chance with Detroit — if anything, just surprised.) The other teams who’d heard “no” on Perez might have been surprised, too, that the Astros finally surrendered one of their vaunted top-six prospects.

The Tigers actually first asked for young pitcher Forrest Whitley, a late-first-round pick in the 2016 draft that’s impressed so much that he’s already up to Double-A as a 19-year-old and looks so good he might be picked in the top-three if that draft was redrafted (as Baseball America’s John Sickels noted). But the Astros were adamant that Whitley wasn’t going anywhere.

Inside Baseball | National League Notes

When the Astros gave in on Perez, he joined center field prospect Daz Cameron (son of Mike) and catcher Jake Rogers to form a package for Detroit, with the Tigers sending $8 million a year to cover a part of Verlander’s salary in 2018 and ’19 along with their iconic ace to Houston.

“I was surprised the Tigers paid down as little as they did,” yet another rival executive noted.

There’s little question Perez is the real deal, and he is the coup de gras of the trade. Scouts love Cameron’s talent and believe Rogers has a chance, too. But while all three players are top-100 prospects, a couple scouts suggested Cameron and Rogers could go either way, which isn’t a surprise in a package of three.

Cameron is considered “toolsy” with great speed and an arm, and one scout said Cameron could be a Melvin Upton Jr. type player, which wouldn’t be bad at all as a second player in package of three (or even a Mike Cameron player, said another; that would be terrific, of course). Another scout liked Rogers’ defense and power potential. But a third scout, who stipulated that both Cameron and Rogers are strong defenders, called Rogers only “solid” and wondered how much either young player would hit.

Anyway, both prospects were ranked in the top half Houston’s top-30, which is noteworthy considering the Astros are considered to have one of the better farm systems. While this may not have been the haul the Tigers dreamed about, they felt satisfied when the deal was done, and rightfully so.

08 JUL 2015: Daz Cameron of the Astros during the Gulf Coast League game between the GCL Tigers and the GCL Astros at the Osceola County Stadium complex in Kissimmee, Florida.

Daz Cameron, then of the Astros, at the County Stadium complex in Kissimmee, Florida. (Cliff Welch/Icon Sportswire)

Considering all the factors working against them, the Tigers actually did quite well from here, and are now among the top handful of teams for pitching prospects, with holdovers Matt Manning, Beau Burrows, Alex Faedo, Kyle Funkhouser, Tyler Alexander and others as well. Earlier in the day, in a first blockbuster, they’d added yet another pitching prospect, Grayson Long, from the Angels, while paying under $1 million, to send Upton to the Angels.

The Upton deal was another necessary one as it eliminated the possibility Upton would choose not to opt out, which would have meant the rebuilding Tigers would still be on the hook for another $90 million over four more years, money they don’t need to be spending in their rebuilding state. Agent Larry Reynolds and Avila had met in recent weeks, but there’s no indication Upton or his rep tipped their hand – and the reality is that there may be nothing to tip, as his opt-out call may come down to how he performs in September and possibly October with the Angels, and how the free-agent market shapes up for him (more on that in AL notes).

The belief, though, is that Upton and Reynolds didn’t discourage a trade to the Angels, a team Upton talked to and showed interest in two years ago before they decided they didn’t have the money. (Although there was a report the Giants were in on Upton, it appears there may have only been one serious suitor, as it turned out, likely due to the uncertainty of the opt-out.)

As for Verlander, the Tigers found the market tougher than even expected, going back to the winter. The Dodgers were the prime pursuer back then, but their interest changed the moment the new CBA was signed with high luxury-tax penalties, basically blowing up that possibility. That was a blow as the Tigers knew Verlander would accept L.A., where he and fiancée, the noted supermodel/actress and sometime-sportswriter-critic Kate Upton have a home.

That call and other winter trade disappointments led to the Tigers giving it one last shot with all their high-priced veteran talent. But like two years ago, they made the correct call to sell – even if was a delayed sale.

An in-season Verlander deal never was going to be easy. And when they got to the last day, they had only one realistic option for a great veteran pitcher whose salary is appropriately high, and his ERA, despite a nice second-half run, still was above his career norm.

The Astros, a team that holds onto top prospects like they are precious jewels, certainly were no guarantee to ever make a reasonable offer, much less a fair one. They included none of their top prospects in offers for other stars at the first deadline, and they wouldn’t budge on Perez for Verlander then, either.

It’s possible that the input from the clubhouse (Dallas Keuchel expressed stark disappointment at how little they did leading up to July 31) or even fans may have caused them to loosen their grip on Perez. Or perhaps it was the realization that they’d never make it through three rounds with a rotation fronted by two talented 20-somethings who’d shown some fragility already this year. Whatever the case, the Astros did the right thing.

So did the Tigers.

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Jon Heyman is an MLB Insider for FanRag Sports, featuring breaking news, information and his Inside Baseball column, which appears on FanRagSports.com every Thursday. Heyman also has been an insider at MLB Network since the channel launched in 2009 and is a regular contributor to WFAN in New York, where he appears weekly on the Joe and Evan Show and previously appeared on the Mike and the Mad Dog Show. He also appears on WSCR in Chicago, WBZ-FM in Boston and the Petros and Money Show on Fox in Los Angeles. Heyman comes to FanRag Sports from CBSSports.com, where he worked for five years and wrote the popular Inside Baseball notes column. Before going to CBS, Heyman worked for five years at Sports Illustrated and SI.com, where he was a senior writer and started an Inside Baseball Column. Heyman worked for 16 years at Newsday in New York, where he was the Yankees beat writer, a baseball columnist and finally a general sports columnist. Heyman started his career at the Moline (Ill.) Daily Dispatch, then moved to the Los Angeles Copley Newspapers (Torrance Daily Breeze and Santa Monica Outlook) before going to Newsday. Heyman at one time also served as a national baseball writer for The Sporting News. Heyman is a graduate of Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism. The Santa Fe, N.M. native grew up in Cedarhurst, N.Y., on Long Island.