Detroit Tigers general manager Al Avila scouted Justin Verlander in the spring of 2004, when Verlander pitched for Old Dominion on a day that Avila recalls as cold and overcast. Verlander struggled and threw a lot of pitches, and Avila, watching from the stands, assumed that a reliever would be summoned for the sixth or seventh inning.
“He ended up going nine innings,” Avila said, “still throwing 100 mph late in the game.”
The Tigers selected Verlander with the second overall pick in the draft that year, and Avila was in the room when Verlander signed that first contract. Avila’s son, Alex Avila, would become Verlander’s personal catcher, the two growing so close that the families of Alex and Justin vacationed together. So with all of that history, the goodbye between Verlander and Al Avila, after the Detroit GM traded Verlander at midnight Thursday, was more than a formal handshake. It was more like seeing off a nephew moving to another part of the country.
“We hugged like three times in the clubhouse today,” said Avila, speaking from his office Friday evening.
Sentiment has been pushed to the side out of necessity in Detroit, to the degree that Avila also traded his son, among many other players. J.D. Martinez was the first to go, followed by Justin Wilson, Justin Upton and Verlander.
Al Avila had advised his boss, Detroit chief executive officer and president Chris Ilitch, that the Tigers’ trajectory was not sustainable. The aging team has been propped up on expensive contracts and a record-setting payroll and was badly in need of young (and cheap) talent. With the blessing of ownership, Avila made moves that have greatly reduced the team’s debt -- big player contracts -- and improved a farm system which has generally been among the sport’s worst over the past decade.
But the trades of Martinez, Alex Avila, Wilson, Upton and Verlander also seem to signal the end of an era when the Tigers -- operating under Mike Ilitch, who died in February -- spent well beyond the business potential of the team.
“We’re not going to [be] spending like we were, going over the luxury tax, clicking the debt-service rule,” Avila said. “We pushed the envelope and had some success. It wasn’t the best business model. We really have a different philosophy.”
Which means that as the Tigers advance beyond a rebuilding cycle that is just now beginning, their payroll will look closer to that of the Houston Astros than that of the Los Angeles Dodgers or New York Yankees. Detroit has long been an outlier with its spending, but now the onus will be on the front office to pick the right players, such as Alex Faedo, the pitcher they chose in the first round of June's draft, and to foster development of the farm system. Draft and develop; build from within.
Avila reiterated Friday that he was not under orders to dump salary this summer; rather, Ilitch greenlit Avila’s plan to wait for what the Tigers deemed to be right and proper offers for the talent of Verlander and the others. For example: Second baseman Ian Kinsler was claimed on waivers in August, and the Tigers pulled him back, rather than unload his salary, and Detroit holds an option on Kinsler for 2018.
As the summer trade period began, Avila and his staff identified what they thought would be a fair return for Verlander, and the Tigers had extensive conversations with the Astros, Chicago Cubs, Dodgers, Yankees and other teams before the July 31 non-waiver deadline. But the right offer didn't take shape for the Tigers; they were fully prepared to carry the star pitcher into the winter of 2017-18.
Verlander passed through waivers in early August, unsurprisingly, given his full no-trade clause and the $56 million owed to him for the next two seasons. Houston could have placed a claim, but did not. Through the first 30 days of August, Avila offered the same assessment to Verlander whenever the two men discussed the chances for a trade: “It’s possible, but I don’t think it’s probable.”
The Astros’ perspective apparently shifted dramatically, however, through a difficult August. By the middle of last week, Houston stepped up its offer for Verlander significantly, in the eyes of the Tigers, and Avila began to inform teams he thought he had a chance to make a deal. Verlander helped the Tigers’ effort by posting a 2.31 ERA over his final 11 starts for Detroit, his average fastball velocity reaching 95.3 mph, 10th-best in baseball.
As the Astros and Tigers made progress Thursday evening and the midnight deadline approached, Avila -- working from his home with his staff -- called Verlander and told him that there was a deal to which the pitcher would need to say "yes" or "no."
“Let me think about it and call you back,” Verlander said.
Not long afterward, Avila recalled, Verlander called back and said "yes." In order for the deal to become official, Avila needed Verlander to formally sign a paper that indicated he was waiving his no-trade clause, and Avila dispatched two staffers to Verlander’s home a few miles away. Verlander signed, and the document was quickly emailed to the central office at Major League Baseball.
Detroit landed three of Houston’s best prospects, including pitcher Franklin Perez, who is already the highest-ranked Tigers minor leaguer on MLB.com's prospect watch, and outfielder Daz Cameron, the son of longtime major leaguer Mike Cameron.
Mike Ilitch bought the Tigers in 1992 and he doled out big dollars to keep the team filled with stars: Ivan Rodriguez, Magglio Ordonez, Kenny Rogers, Prince Fielder, Miguel Cabrera, Upton and Verlander. Detroit reached the postseason five times in nine years and hosted World Series games in 2006 and 2012. Some Tigers will believe for the rest of their lives that they were baseball’s best team in 2013, before one swing by David Ortiz tipped the American League Championship Series in Boston’s favor and the Red Sox prevailed.
But that kind of Tigers team -- a club saturated with expensive veteran stars -- might be extinct now. Moving forward, Detroit’s market earnings will define the club’s budget and, inevitably, a more conservative approach.
Around the league
When members of the Players' Association and Major League Baseball first met in August, commissioner Rob Manfred among them, league officials impressed upon the players what they perceived to be the effectiveness of the pitch clock, which was a central part of the conversation. MLB has the right to unilaterally impose rules on the Players' Association in its desire to accelerate pace of action, and league officials believe that the pitch clock -- which regulates the time allowed between pitches -- has been an effective tool since being implemented in the minor leagues.
Echoing what he said repeatedly in spring training, Manfred told the players he is very much open to their suggestions and a dialogue about how to speed up games, which was not changed in the most recent collective bargaining agreement.
Some hitters around the sport have worked diligently to get the ball in the air with their swing -- to lift the ball for extra-base hits, under the premise that they can do more damage this way and that eventually, they’ll be paid more.
But as Keith Law and I discussed on Thursday's podcast, the explosion of home runs throughout the industry (other than the San Francisco Giants, anyway) might actually work against position players. In 2014, 57 players generated 20 or more home runs, or about two per team. But this year, hitting 20 homers, or even 25, won't necessarily be a distinguishable trait. As of Saturday, 86 players had 20 or more homers, and it appears that by season’s end, about 120 players will reach that 20-homer benchmark. To put that number into perspective: About 150 players will accumulate enough plate appearances to qualify for the batting title. Most regular position players are going to hit 20 to 30 homers.
Some evaluators assume that this will depress the dollars paid to free agents this winter, even more than in the last offseason, because it’s simply not that difficult to find guys who hit homers. It’s a question of supply and demand, and the skills that could be in demand might be defense and the ability to put the ball in play.
Shohei Otani will be the most-discussed player in the baseball industry this winter, because of his age (23) and his staggering ability as a hitter and pitcher. The other day, with Yankees general manager Brian Cashman and evaluators from more than a dozen other teams in attendance, Otani’s fastball was clocked at 100 mph. Because of new restrictions under the collective bargaining agreement negotiated last fall, Otani would stand to make more money if he waited a couple of years to move to MLB. But the full expectation within the industry at this point is that Otani will be playing for an MLB team in the 2018 season.
As the summer began, there was a perception among some teams that Otani wants to hit and pitch regularly, and while that might prove to be impractical, it seems like an easy quandary to resolve, initially. Like a college basketball coach dealing with a recruit who wants to start, executives can tell Otani: Sure, we’re happy to give you that opportunity.
After the colorful display of shoes and jerseys over Players Weekend, one front-office type noted that there could be room for style improvement with the relatively bland helmets and hats. The logos of NFL teams spill over to the sides of the helmets, and MLB could explore the idea of utilizing that space.
Award leaders with a month to go:
AL Cy Young Award: Chris Sale. But he’s basically running neck-and-neck with Corey Kluber, who might benefit in the voting from a stronger second half, as Jake Arrieta did in 2015, when he beat out Clayton Kershaw and Zack Greinke.
NL Cy Young Award: Max Scherzer has a sizable lead, ahead of Clayton Kershaw.
Baseball Tonight podcast
Friday: Following the trades of Verlander, Upton and Brandon Phillips, Karl Ravech and Paul Hembekides dig into what it all means for the Astros, Angels and Tigers; Jessica Mendoza on the AL Cy Young Award race; Michael Kay on the trials of Aaron Judge and the Yankees, and what Derek Jeter will do with Giancarlo Stanton.
Thursday: Rangers pitching coach and former Astro Doug Brocail on the devastation in Texas and how the players and staffers are coping; Orioles second baseman and MVP candidate Jonathan Schoop.
Wednesday: Marlins manager Don Mattingly on Stanton’s recent hot streak and his first memories of incoming Miami owner Jeter; Tim Kurkjian on the rising market value of Arrieta; John Fisher with some remarkable numbers on Rhys Hoskins.
Tuesday: Jay Bruce of the Indians on the damage to his home state of Texas, his first impressions of the Indians and defensive metrics; Boog Sciambi on Kluber and the two-man AL Cy Young race; Sarah Langs plays the Numbers Game and discusses David Wright’s situation.
Monday: Conversations with Washington Nationals manager Dusty Baker and closer Sean Doolittle; Todd Radom’s uniform and logo quiz and the No. 5 logo of all-time; Jerry Crasnick on whether Jeter should consider trading Stanton, or resolve to keep him, and the early work of Hoskins.
And today will be better than yesterday.