Green: Why the Tigers’ trade of Justin Verlander was a swindle, the worst in 98 years

Detroit News
By Jerry Green |  Special to The Detroit News

Detroit — It was almost midnight when the swindle occurred, a sorry half decade ago. But the pain and the mirth remain. Pain if you’re from Detroit.  Mirth and joyous mockery if you’re from Houston.

This was the Great Verlander Swindle  baseball’s worst player deal in 98 years.

Major League Baseball franchises have swapped with each other over the last century-plus with results beneficial or disastrous (or in between) from the time the Red Sox convinced the Yankees to accept Babe Ruth. Hundreds of trades, thousands more rumored, never consummated.

Then, in the dark night of Aug. 31, 2017, the Astros cajoled the Tigers into trading them Justin Verlander. The transaction just beat the then-waiver trade deadline.

In the interim between then and now, Verlander contributed mightily to one World Series championship (previously tainted), a third career no-hitter and this month nearly a fourth, and more playoffs, a favorite for another pennant.

And this irony-stricken season, this exiled Detroit stalwart has contributed 16 victories with a reconstructed pitching arm and a 39-year-old body.

In exchange, the Tigers received three young players — and ultimately a manager to lead in the Baseball Wilderness.

Two of the players were damaged and remained unusable most of the five years. The third played occasionally for the Tigers, a passenger aboard the Toledo-Detroit shuttle.

The manager remains.

That would be AJ Hinch, current conductor of the Tigers and watchguard over the Comerica Park Follies.

It boils into a deplorable season in Detroit baseball.

Meanwhile, the Astros are flourishing.

Like in 1920 after Red Sox owner and money-strapped theatrical majordomo Harry Frazee peddled Babe Ruth for $125,000 plus a $300,000 loan, triggering the Yankees to multiple championships.

Babe Ruth went on to never-to-be-matched immortality. Home runs. Batting average. World championships. Occasionally pitching appearances when needed. Image.

The sport’s Forever MVP.

The Babe captivated a country — and the world — a century ago.

Verlander’s achievements are dominant in a non-Ruthian context.

In the one-month aftermath of his trade, Verlander went 5-0 for the Astros.

It was a prelude to the postseason, the pennant playoffs.

“He chose to come here for games like this,” Hinch told the assembled national media during the 2017 postseason.

Verlander won twice in the Division Series with Houston eliminating the Red Sox in four games.

And then came the Championship Series against the Yankees, a classic seven-game series. With epic performances.

Verlander defeated the Yankees in Game 2 in Houston.

In essence he defied his manager and kept going and going. He threw 124 pitches in an age when the pitch count is major issue. The Astros won, 2-1, and Verlander mounted 13 strikeouts and yield five hits.

That manager raved in the postgame press conference about the Astros acquisition.

“Big moments are for big-time performers,” Hinch said as quoted by Mike Baumann on The Ringer website.

“From pitch one, Justin Verlander was big for this team. Really, pitch one as an Astro. But most importantly, this game today he was exceptional in every way.”

Journalists compared Verlander to the legendary, late Bob Gibson — ultimate praise.

“When it came down to it, when I decided to say yes,” Verlander said of his near-midnight decision five years ago to waive his no-trade contract with the Tigers, “these are the moments that you envision.

“You don’t envision going 5-0 in the regular season once you get here,” Verlander continued with his postgame Game 2 victory remarks to the press.  “That’s all fine and great, but that’s not why I was brought here.

“I was brought here to help this team win a championship.”

Beating the Yankees in Game 2 was not yet the climax. The Yankees would win all three games in Yankee Stadium back in the Bronx. And after dominating the first two games, the Astros were on the edge of elimination in Game 6 in Houston.

This Game 6 rescue mission — I would daresay — was the most critical of Verlander’s career.

The Astros won, 7-1. But the final score does not reflect the suspense and drama of the night as America watch on TV.

Hinch yanked Verlander after seven innings with a 3-0 lead. The Astros would score four times in the eighth.

“He’s been everything we could have hoped for and more,” Hinch said in his postgame remarks, as quoted again by Baumann.

The Astros would win Game 7 — and then their tarnished championship over the Dodgers in the World Series.

Justin Verlander has been the best pitcher in Major League Baseball in the 21st century, without dispute.

He must be immortalized, in my judgment, with Cy Young and Walter Johnson, Grover Cleveland Alexander, Christy Mathewson, Iron Man Joe McGinnity and Ruth himself. And in my time of studying Baseball since 1936, Bob Feller, Sandy Koufax, Bob Gibson and Roger Clemens.

And the Tigers gave away this prize pitcher for Jake Rogers, a light-hitting catcher recovering from Tommy John surgery; Daz Cameron, a commuter on the Toledo-We-Need-Help-Immediately shuttle; and Franklin Perez, a mostly broken pitcher stuck in the middle minors. The raves about Perez faded away long ago.

This woebegone trade climaxed the Tigers’ crash of the last 5-7 years. It was preceded by allowing Max Scherzer — tied for second as the best pitcher of the 21st century with Clayton Kershaw — to vanish without return as a free agent by the late Mike Ilitch, an ego move. And the trade of a J.D. Martinez in a hitting-need situation by the departed Al Avila after the cashiering of Dave Dombrowski.

What has been termed a rebuild is a failure after seven years.

All folly. Detroit deserves better!

Jerry Green is a retired Detroit News sports reporter.

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