The Astros needed Justin Verlander. It was obvious on July 31. It was obvious on Aug. 31. It's too cute to draw a line directly from the disappointment felt by Dallas Keuchel and the fans after the trade deadline directly to the 11-17 record in August, but that doesn't mean you can't think it. If the Astros won 95 games and lost in the ALDS because their starters had a collective 8.49 ERA, there would have been a lot of discussion about everyone's 20/20 foresight.
The Tigers needed to trade Justin Verlander. Or, at least, rebuild with a great vengeance. They kept cracking their window open, just enough, year after year, turning a last-place disaster season in 2015 into a reanimated corpse-stagger of a second-place finish the next year. They were in before this season, but just barely, and only if their expensive, mid-to-late-30s crew could find a way to be the All-Stars they were in their early 30s. They could not.
This was a trade that should have happened a month ago, but credit everyone involved for making it happen now. Both sides get an A. Most of the attention will be, rightfully, focused on the Astros, who have quickly become the sentimental favorite for fans looking for a team to cheer on this postseason. Sports are pointless, sports are everything, sports are dumb, sports are what we look forward to, sports can help us remember, sports can help us forget. All of that will be a focus in Houston over the next month or two, and the Astros are charging into it with a team that’s stronger in just the right ways.
The Tigers deserve a eulogy, though. They weren’t contenders in every season since their miracle 2006 pennant, but they’ve been a constant presence in the American League, even when they finished in last place. Mike Ilitch kept adding rooms onto his personal Winchester Mystery House, adding staircases to nowhere, sparing no cost, trying to get that elusive World Series title.
The Tigers were, above all, fun. At their peak, they had the best pitcher in baseball and one of the greatest hitters of all time, a rare combination that’s easy to appreciate while it exists and easier to appreciate when it’s gone. The Tigers were the default pick in the AL Central for years because of Verlander and Miguel Cabrera.
The Tigers were a constant offseason threat, too. They were the ones who sprung up at the last second to leaf through the 73-page Scott Boras binder and sign Prince Fielder. They were the ones to snatch Victor Martinez away from the rest of the league. They were always willing to spend, spend, spend on players like Fielder, Martinez, Ordonez, Rodriguez, Sanchez, Hunter, Peralta, and Nathan. They were always willing to give up that one extra prospect to get players like Cespedes, Price, and Cabrera. They even had their moments turning released players like J.D. Martinez into all-stars.
And it almost worked.
If the goal is to enjoy baseball over a long, long season, it worked brilliantly, giving Tigers fans four consecutive postseason appearances for the first time in franchise history. If the goal is to win that one stupid championship after putting a billion dollars in the claw machine, it almost worked. The stuffed trophy was in the claw, but it always jostled out right before it dropped down the hole. Another $200 million into the machine, then ...
Now that Verlander is gone, Cabrera is mortal, and the rest of the team is a mess, it’s far too easy to go back and pick those nits. Was there a way to lock up Max Scherzer before he turned into a Cy Young winner or spend money on him instead of Anibal Sanchez, at least?
Was there a better option than Prince Fielder for a team with a quarter-billion to spend? What was with all the Don Kelly? Was there a way to anticipate the bullpen being bad? Was there a way to anticipate the bullpen being bad the season after it was bad? Was there a way to anticipate the bullpen being bad after it was bad for two straight seasons? We’ll never know the answers to these questions.
There was always a buzzsaw to run into, whether it was a Giants team that was incredibly high on comeback dust and unwilling to allow runs, a Cardinals team that was busy converting the baseball world to orthodox youneverknowism, or a Red Sox team that had weaponized the bitterness and disappointment from previous seasons. In retrospect, this was when the dam burst:
In that series, Cabrera was hurt and not himself (foreshadowing). Verlander was excellent, but he wasn’t an MVP candidate anymore (foreshadowing). The bullpen was in the business of breaking hearts (law of physics), and the aging, expensive free agent tried valiantly to succeed, but he tumbled over the wall and out of sight (a metaphor that’s waaaay too on the nose). This series led to the bizarre Doug Fister trade, which led to the bizarrier Robby Ray trade, which led to, well, you reading this right now.
The nitpicking and the buzzsaws are too easy to dwell on, though. It was a fun team. It was a fun team for a decade. The 2003 Tigers were one of baseball’s worst teams, one of the worst we’ll ever see, and the franchise was able to use every one of those 119 losses as stinky lumps of methane pudding that helped them build a bigger, better fire. They lost those games so they could draft Verlander and turn him into a Cy Young winner, into an MVP. They turned one of the all-time worst teams into one of the all-time best pitchers, which isn’t always how it has to work.
Plenty of teams have fallen into the abyss, only to screw up the draft pick who was supposed to be their reward. Consider the Padres, who had the first pick in the Verlander draft and went with not-Verlander. The Tigers didn’t have to come out of the 2003 season with positive momentum.
But they did, and it was with Verlander, and it was fun, so much fun, tremendous fun. That’s how baseball is supposed to be — with the bad teams becoming good with the good draft picks they picked up from being so bad, a wheel that keeps spinning around, bringing teams up and down, depending where they just were.
Except it’s not always like that. There’s no wheel. The Yankees haven’t finished under .500 in 26 years. The Mariners have never won a pennant. The Nationals have been up for years, except they haven’t won a postseason series since they spoke French. There’s no fairness, no equity.
The Tigers are proof of that, both in the best and worst possible way.
This easily identifiable era of prolonged success is over, and Tigers fans know that Verlander deserves as much credit as any player has ever deserved. It’s easy to look back and wonder what if every time the calendar flips to October.
That will drive a baseball fan mad, though. My advice would be to bury those thoughts, look back wistfully, and think, wasn’t that fun? Justin Verlander isn’t on the Tigers anymore, and it’s the end of an era that was never going to last forever. But, hear me out on this one: Wasn’t that fun?
Because it was. It really, really was.