Verlander has stuff to put contender over top

July 25th, 2017

Somebody should have told to waste the 2-2 pitch to Whit Merrifield in the seventh inning Monday night.

If the count had gone full, one of the greatest Tigers pitchers ever would have thrown 120 pitches in what may have been his final outing for the organization.

If the 5-3, 12-inning loss to the Royals does turn out to be Verlander's farewell outing, that would have been a fitting way to go out -- not that getting his last out on a 98-mph heater on the 119th pitch was bad, mind you.

There have been other pitchers with great fastballs in this era. There hasn't been anyone more able to handle a heavy workload.

In an era of increasing pitch limits and monitoring of pitchers, Verlander and Tigers special assistant Jim Leyland were throwbacks to the time of four-man rotations and pitchers who never wanted to come out of the game. And here he is at age 34, not just still brushing his teeth but blowing away hitters late into games and attracting trade interest from the Cubs, Dodgers and other contenders.

There have been only 12 games this season in which a starting pitcher has thrown 120-plus pitches. Verlander has reached the 120-pitch mark 61 times in his career, including 46 in a remarkable four-year span beginning in 2009.

That's not quite the stuff of Phil Niekro or Nolan Ryan, but by contemporary standards, Verlander might as well be Old Hoss Radbourn.

Leyland doesn't believe in firm pitch limits. He believes a manager should use his eyes and the communication between him, his pitching coach and the pitcher to determine when it's time for a pitching change.

There haven't been many times when the guy warming up in the bullpen was a better option than Verlander, who has posted a 178-113 record and a 3.52 ERA in his 13 seasons with Detroit.

Tigers manager Brad Ausmus might have handled Verlander the same way as Leyland if he had him earlier in his career. But since replacing Leyland, Ausmus has watched the prized asset closely, allowing Verlander to make only one 120-pitch start in 2015, one in '16 and none so far this season.

Verlander is fifth among active pitchers in innings, behind , , and . He's younger than everyone on the list except King Felix (31), and he ranks higher in wins (fourth, with 178) and strikeouts (fourth, with 2,317) than innings, which speaks to his effectiveness.

The workload has caught up to Verlander somewhat in his 30s, as he was sidelined with a right triceps strain for two months in 2015. That sparked fear this would be the beginning of the end, but he adjusted his workouts and almost won a second American League Cy Young Award last season. He's been as tough, if not quite as effective this season, as he showed in his 119-pitch no-decision against the Royals.

Verlander's four-seam fastball is averaging 95.7 mph in 2017, his best velocity since '11. He averaged 96 mph and hit 99 on Monday against the Royals, striking out nine in seven innings while allowing three runs on five hits.

It was an impressive showcase for the scouts at Comerica Park.

When Detroit selected Verlander from Old Dominion with the second overall pick in the 2004 Draft, the team was mired in one of the bleakest periods of the franchise's proud history. But the Tigers have been competitive almost every season since he landed a full-time spot in Leyland's rotation in 2006, reaching the postseason five times and the World Series twice.

Trading Verlander would be an agonizing move for the Tigers' ownership and general manager Al Avila. But he's guaranteed $28 million in each of the next two seasons and seems to prefer a move to a contender to being part of the rebuilding effort that was effectively launched when J.D. Martinez was dealt to the D-backs on July 18.

Because of risks that come with Verlander's age, Detroit is telling teams that it will help pay down his contract if the return in prospects meets the club's approval, according to sources. He would have to be involved in finalizing a deal, as he has full no-trade rights as a 10-and-5 player.

Verlander got the Tigers to the World Series in 2006 and '12, but they lost to the Cardinals and Giants, respectively. While he would always lament not winning a championship for Detroit fans, Leyland and the Ilitch family, the chance to see him jump into the competition with the Dodgers, Cubs or someone else would make for a great story.

Any team bold enough to deal for Verlander will be getting a horse, and that's about the best compliment you can give a pitcher.