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The Detroit Tigers traded starting pitcher Justin Verlander to the Houston Astros late Thursday night, Houston announced, after the deal was initially called off.
The Detroit Free Press‘ Anthony Fenech and FanRag Sports’ Jon Heyman first reported the trade.
Heyman added the Astros will send prospects Franklin Perez, Daz Cameron and Jake Rogers to the Tigers.
Jeff Passan of Yahoo Sports reported the Tigers will pay at least $10 million of Verlander’s remaining salary.
Shortly before word of the finalized trade broke, the Detroit News‘ Chris McCosky reported the deal had been called off:
Chris McCosky @cmccosky
The Verlander deal was nixed either because he vetoed it, or because the Astros got cold feet and pulled back part of their offer. Not clear
Jon Morosi of Fox Sports reported the Chicago Cubs were Verlander’s top choice, and he wanted to give that deal a chance to happen before agreeing to the Houston deal.
“He was a little reluctant and eventually made the right decision,” Astros owner Jim Crane said, per Brian McTaggart of MLB.com.
Verlander spent the entirety of his first 12-plus years in the major leagues with Detroit. The 34-year-old Virginia native won an American League MVP, a Cy Young Award and earned six All-Star selections during that time.
The right-hander also had best season since 2012 last year. He posted a 3.04 ERA and 1.00 WHIP while striking out 254 batters in 227.2 innings across two starts. It showed he could still perform like an ace after a couple of years where that status as a top-tier pitcher came into question.
He hasn’t been able to match that success in 2017, however, accumulating a 3.82 ERA and 1.28 WHIP across 28 starts.
In addition to the drop-off in his numbers, Verlander is scheduled to make $28 million annually through 2019, according to Spotrac. It made him an expendable asset for the Tigers ahead of the trade deadline.
Now the key question is what to expect from him after the marquee trade. Is he the front-line starter of 2016, the mid-rotation starter of 2015 or the replacement-level asset of 2014? The stats don’t provide a clear answer.
On the plus side, his strikeout rate increased to above 10 batters per nine innings last season and his walk rate was also below his career average. Those elements are crucial when it comes to keeping him out of jams.
Other statistics suggest his resurgence involved quite a bit of luck, though. FanGraphs noted his left-on-base percentage increased nine points from 2015 and more than six points from his career average. In addition, his batting average on balls in play was .255, more than 30 points below his 12-year average.
That’s why his xFIP checked in at 3.78, well above his 3.04 ERA for last year, and made his regression so far this season less of a surprise.
His evolution as a pitcher is another thing to keep in mind. He’s no longer the pure flamethrower he was during his early days with the Tigers.
In 2009, Verlander threw 67.9 percent fastballs with a mean velocity of 95.6 mph and just 2.3 percent sliders, per FanGraphs. In 2016, he threw 57.3 percent fastballs with a mean velocity of 93.5 mph, and his slider usage was all the way up to a career-high 18.3 percent, a trend that continued this year.
Those changes paired with his rejuvenated performance in 2016, especially in terms of strikeouts, are a positive sign when it comes to his staying power as he hits his mid-30s.
All told, the uncertainty about whether Verlander can match the numbers from last season does create risk in trading for him, particularly when you consider the salary. But the lack of available starting pitching meant teams that wanted an upgrade would need to take a chance.
The Astros didn’t need another starter. Brad Peacock has filled in admirably when a spot in the rotation has opened up during the course of the campaign, most recently with Lance McCullers Jr. placed on the disabled list with back discomfort.
That said, when the opportunity arises to acquire somebody such as Verlander, it’s often hard to pass it up, especially for a legitimate World Series contender such as Houston. He can help fortify the rotation and give the team more margin for error should further injuries arise.
One thing’s for sure: His track record is among the strongest of any active starter, and the high expectations on his shoulders following the trade will be based on the prior success.