As the Tigers falter, Justin Verlander emerges as an intriguing trade possibility

Jeff Passan
MLB columnist

Tuesday offered a fairly typical evening for the 2017 version of Justin Verlander. His fastball, sitting at 95 mph, harkens back to his most glorious days. And yet that measure, so often a bellwether for a pitcher’s effectiveness, did nothing to stop the Kansas City Royals from hanging three first-inning runs on him. While Verlander settled down to shut the Royals out for the next six innings, he has been alternately wild and hittable, a frustrating duality for a pitcher who just last year deserved the American League Cy Young Award.

It’s with that in mind that evaluators around baseball are asking a handful of questions. With a starting pitching trade market big on depth but relatively barren of those with frontline reputations, is Verlander going to be available? If he is, would he waive his no-trade clause to accept a deal? And if he would, is acquiring him worth what it would cost?

Multiple front-office sources told Yahoo Sports they expect Verlander to hit the trade market sometime in the next two weeks. This is more tea-leaf reading than any indication Tigers general manager Al Avila has given in conversations with teams. Still, if the Tigers do punt on 2017 – their 34-42 record is the AL’s second worst – they could begin a rebuild in earnest without a franchise icon.

That and Verlander’s performance this season are both tangible issues, as would be his trade value, all three of which could combine to make a deal difficult to consummate. Even though Verlander is owed $56 million over the next two seasons, the Tigers would not view a deal of him as a pure money dump.

Justin Verlander is owed $56 million over the next two seasons. (Getty Images)

Verlander has shown no inclination to leave Detroit, according to sources, though at 34 years old and without a championship ring, joining a contender would force him to consider waiving his no-trade rights. That would be particularly true if the Tigers enter a rebuild, which is a difficult task with the struggling Miguel Cabrera under contract through 2023, Jordan Zimmermann locked up for another three years and Justin Upton potentially there through 2021, unless he opts out this winter.

One high-ranking executive from a team looking for pitching said Verlander has been “appreciably worse” this season after a spectacular 2016 – a malady that has affected Jose Quintana and Gerrit Cole, two of the names expected to headline the July starting-pitching market along with Sonny Gray, who himself hasn’t been altogether great. Last season, Verlander led the American League in strikeouts, held hitters to a .630 OPS and posted a 3.04 ERA over nearly 230 innings. This season, Verlander already has walked nearly as many batters as he did all of last year, his walk rate of 4.2 per nine innings the highest of his career, and his ERA is 4.47.

Some evaluators are bullish nonetheless. One believes a return to a competitive team would reinvigorate Verlander and compared him to Randy Johnson in 1998. At 34 years old, Johnson had a 4.33 ERA with Seattle. After a deadline deal to Houston, he went 10-1 with a 1.28 ERA and struck out 116 in 84 1/3 innings.

The final lingering question involves the money and how many teams would be willing to take on the $56 million. Were Verlander to hit the free-agent market, he surely would get more than that, so the deal, in that regard, isn’t necessarily bad. Still, it’s prohibitive enough that it has scared away at least one large-market team that has been linked to Verlander.

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Among the hottest names on the trade market right now? Brad Hand, of course.

For those unfamiliar – and outside of those that follow the National League West, that percentage may be quite large – Hand is a left-handed reliever for the San Diego Padres. He is rather good. The Padres moved him to the bullpen after the Marlins designated him for assignment and turned a free pickup into a commodity for whom one evaluator said San Diego wants “a Chapman-type return.”

Yup. Padres GM A.J. Preller is asking for the moon in a Hand deal, believing a thin relief market, Hand’s ability to work multiple days in a row, his left-handedness and his two years of remaining control make him a unique asset. Now, let’s get something straight: He isn’t Aroldis Chapman, and he will not fetch a prospect of Gleyber Torres’ caliber in return.

It’s early enough in trade season, though, that there’s little harm in Preller asking for so much. Hand could get hurt. He could falter under the workload after an NL-leading 82 games pitched last season and a pace of 79 this season. He also could continue to impress scouts with his vicious slider and tantalize a team into thinking he’s this year’s version of Chapman or Andrew Miller: a left-handed difference-maker.

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Speaking of the Marlins and relievers, multiple teams are targeting closer A.J. Ramos and setup man David Phelps, according to sources, and after the Adeiny Hechavarria trade, the Marlins remain inclined to move salary.

Miami has a history of dumping relief pitching, and aside from the success of Hand, it has done so at players’ peaks in recent years. Ramos’ volatility concerns some executives, while others with elite closers look at his career-high strikeout rate and envision a power seventh- or eighth-inning type. While Phelps is far from the dominant force he was last season, when he struck out 82 in 62 1/3 innings as a reliever and doubled as an excellent swingman, he, like Ramos, also won’t be a free agent until after the 2018 season.

Even as the Marlins look to deal, they understand the prudent move with the relief market may be to hold still for now. When every team needs relief pitching – and always remember, in July, every team needs relief pitching – and those desires get stronger as the deadline approaches, sometimes the bait-and-wait approach really does work.

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Even if the Dodgers’ farm system gives them a great opportunity to strike in the trade market, they may have all they need down on the farm. Alex Verdugo gives them outfield depth, Willie Calhoun infield certainty and a blast from the past depth on the mound.

Remember Wilmer Font? It’s cool. He’s like Brad Hand in that respect, only more forgettable. He arrived with the Texas Rangers in 2012 and between that season and 2013 logged 3 1/3 innings. He toiled in the minor leagues for the next three years, even starting last season in the Can-Am League, and signed with the Dodgers this offseason.

Now at Triple-A Oklahoma City, in the rough-for-pitchers Pacific Coast League, the 27-year-old right-hander has struck out 112 and walked 22 in 80 1/3 innings – and that includes a six-walk start two outings ago.

While Font’s 3.70 ERA doesn’t come close to matching his peripherals, everyone has taken notice of Font’s fastball, a free-and-easy 95-mph dart that tops out at 97 and is thrown with solid enough command that seeing Font in a Dodgers uniform at some point this season feels like a foregone conclusion.

The Dodgers don’t have a roster crunch quite yet, particularly with Julio Urias at some point headed to the 60-day disabled list and freeing up a spot on the 40-man roster, which Font does not have. With the Dodgers’ desire to give their starters extra rest between starts, Font could be a sixth-starter type, a long reliever or someone who can come in and pump high fastballs in at 98 or 99 for an inning at a time.

Whatever Font does, he shows the potential value in minor league free-agent signings and how they may save a team like the Dodgers from dealing a prospect come July.