We've known for some time that the Astros have some level of interest in trading for Tigers veteran ace Justin Verlander and that the two sides have had discussions to that end. Talks seem to die down in recent days, but according to multiple reports -- specifically by Jon Heyman and Jon Morosi -- Houston and Detroit are talking once again.
Obviously, a major trade such as this raises many questions. We have many answers ...
I thought the trade deadline had passed. How can trades still happen?
Indeed, the non-waiver trade deadline went down on July 31. However, teams can still make deals, as we've seen with recent swaps involving Neil Walker, Jay Bruce, and Tyler Clippard. In August, though, players must pass through revocable waivers in order to be traded, in essence offering him up to all other teams.. Anyhow, if a player does make it through revocable waivers, then he's free to be traded to any team (players with no-trade clauses can block certain deals, but that's a separate issue). Any player acquired before the end of August is eligible to be on a postseason roster, so that's in essence a second trade deadline for contenders. That's the one that's relevant to Verlander and the Astros right now.
The Astros have the best record in the AL and a huge lead in the AL West. Why would they make such a major trade?
Yep, Houston leads the Red Sox right now by 5.0 games in the race for top seed in the AL, and they have a hefty 12.5-game lead in the AL West. The Astros' goal, however, is to win the World Series, and that's the source of their interest in Verlander.
The Astros are just 13-17 in the second half and 4-10 in August. Yes, their overall record is outstanding, but they've struggled for some time. In matters related, star shortstop Carlos Correa has been on the DL since July 18 with a torn thumb ligament. Also on the DL is the catching duo of Brian McCann and Evan Gattis. In the rotation, depth is the concern. Dallas Keuchel spent a long stretch on the DL with a neck injury, and just recently turned in his first good start since returning. Lance McCullers is presently laid up with back problems. Right now, the rotation behind Keuchel comprises Collin McHugh, Brad Peacock, Charlie Morton, and Mike Fiers. Even if you assume McCullers returns and rediscovers the first-half form that made him an All-Star, are you comfortable trying to win the trophy with that rotation? Depth worries and an eye toward a deep October run is why the Astros are eyeballing Verlander.
Verlander's overall numbers this season aren't that great. Why are the Astros so interested?
Right now, Verlander's running an ERA+ of 108, and he's got one of the worst K/BB ratios of his career. The overall body of work has been pretty good by the standards of your average starting pitcher, but it's well below what we expect from Verlander. In recent starts, though, he's enjoyed much better results. Over his last eight starts, for instance, Verlander has put up an ERA of 2.55 while striking out almost 27 percent of opposing hitters. Those are frontline results. As well, Verlander credits his recent surge to some mechanical changes. That plus his improved velocity readings in 2017 plus his Cy Young-worthy results last season suggest he can still pitch like an ace, even at age 34. If the Astros trade for him, they'll do so not with his overall 2017 body of work in mind but rather how he plausibly projects in the near-term in mind.
What about Verlander's contract?
So Verlander still has roughly $60 million plus a pricey vesting option for 2020 left on his contract. In one sense, that's good, in that those salary obligations have allowed Verlander to pass through waivers and thus be available in trade. On the other hand, that's an investment the Astros may be loath to make. They could, though. The Astros are raking in revenues these days, and they've run low to low-ish payrolls for several years. If the organizational will is there, then they could certainly take on Verlander's contract. In order to waive his full no-trade clause, Verlander might, for instance, insist that his 2020 option be exercised ahead of time, which would add to the salary commitment. That's how these things work, though. The other option is for the Astros to insist that the Tigers kick in cash so as to defray some of those costs. That, tidily enough, brings us to our next question ...
What could the Tigers expect in return?
This all depends on their motivation for making such a trade. Do they want to restock the farm system with long-term assets? Then they'll need to kick in a lot of cash in order to make Verlander's contract less of a millstone for the Astros. Do they want to make this more of a straight salary dump? Then they're not going to get any frontline prospects coming back their way.
That's how it works when you trade big contracts. In return, you get either salary relief, high-ceiling controllable talent, or some lesser blend of both. Given that the Tigers have carried high payrolls for years upon years in attempt to get late owner Mike Ilitch a ring and given their massive salary obligation to Miguel Cabrera, it seems more likely that they'd look to shed Verlander's contract in any trade. That means the Astros would be taking on a lot of payroll but not necessarily parting with their best prospects. In other words, if this trade comes to pass, then it's not likely to be a very inspiring one for Detroit rooters.
How likely is this deal to happen?
As with any trade speculation of this scale, the default position is that it probably won't happen. In related news, Astros GM Jeff Luhnow during a Wednesday appearance on the Josh Innes Show said that expectations for an August trade for a starting pitcher should be "set very low." That could be posturing and or a calculated effort to set the bar low, but there it is just the same.
So with all those questions answered, let's see if it happens at some point between now and Aug. 31.