Verlander's vision: Get Tigers back to playoffs
Back to Cy Young form, vet bypasses Classic to prep for postseason run
WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. -- Many of Justin Verlander's teammates are scattered around the globe, representing their countries in the World Baseball Classic. He likewise was sorely tempted to accept an offer to play for Jim Leyland, but ultimately declined.
Verlander turned 34 in February and is completely focused on getting the Tigers back into the postseason. This would follow his own resurgence in 2016, when he made a lot of people look silly for thinking he had entered an inevitable period of decline.
Based on the form Verlander showed against the Nationals in Monday's 3-3, 10-inning tie at The Ballpark of the Palm Beaches, it sure looks like he's ready to pick up where he left off, when he led the American League in strikeouts for the fourth time and almost won his second Cy Young Award.
This is great news for Detroit. But the best news came in the offseason.
Rumors about the Tigers possibly trading J.D. Martinez, Ian Kinsler and other veterans with big contracts turned out to be all smoke, no fire. No one was more relieved than Verlander, whose $180 million contract runs through 2019, with an option for '20.
"Was I worried?'' Verlander said. "Yeah. Did it happen? No. Am I happy? Yes.''
While Detroit won 86 games last season, the club has missed the playoffs two straight seasons after a run of four consecutive AL Central titles. General manager Al Avila would like to make his roster younger, but his mandate remains the same as it was before the recent passing of legendary owner Mike Ilitch -- to win the Tigers' first championship since 1984.
Verlander loves having more time to win with a roster that also includes Miguel Cabrera, Victor Martinez, Justin Upton and Jordan Zimmermann.
"I don't want to be part of a team that's dismantled and you don't have a chance to win,'' Verlander said. "I don't think that's fun for anybody involved. I don't think anybody in baseball wants to dismantle a good team. … [For us], when we came to spring, it's business at usual. Go back at it and try to win championships.''
As much as anyone else, it was Verlander who brought the World Series to Detroit in 2006, his rookie season, and 11 years later, it still seems that as Verlander goes, so go the Tigers.
"He's a huge chunk of it,'' said Brad Ausmus, who replaced Leyland as the Tigers' manager in 2014. "He's still one of the elite pitchers in the game, and pitching wins. Starting pitching takes the bulk of the innings. He's a big chunk of it.''
This has been a typical Spring Training for Verlander in many ways. He's been healthy and is dealing, as he did throughout 2016, when his velocity increased every month of the season. Verlander is back where he was before the downturn in '14 and '15, when he dealt with a core muscle issue that required offseason surgery, and a strained triceps, which put him on the disabled list for the first time.
Verlander worked 4 2/3 innings against the Nats, allowing only one hit and one walk. The hit was a bunt single by Adam Eaton that Eaton later apologized for, according to Verlander.
"Broke up my no-no,'' he said, smiling.
Verlander was uncharacteristically average in 2014, when he pushed himself to rehab from his January core surgery in time to make his seventh straight Opening Day start. His 4.54 ERA that season still looks like a misprint on his player page.
The following season was just as aggravating, after Verlander was sidelined in Spring Training and wound up healing slowly. He didn't make his first start in 2015 until June 13, and making matters worse was that Max Scherzer had left Detroit to sign with Washington.
But Verlander put all of that behind him with a vintage season a year ago. He was 16-9 with a 3.04 ERA, which was second to Aaron Sanchez in the AL. Verlander also threw 227 2/3 innings, his most in a season since 2012.
What was the difference?
"It was a few things,'' Ausmus said. "He was healthy, for one. He had a full offseason regimen with his workouts. He tightened up his slider in-season, which helped. He made a little adjustment on his curveball as well. That helped. He started preparing differently, in terms of looking at statistical information on opposing hitters. All of those factor in.''
While Verlander quietly prepares for the season, Kinsler is playing second base for Leyand's Team USA squad in the World Baseball Classic, and Cabrera was playing alongside Victor Martinez and closer Francisco Rodriguez with Venezuela's team.
Ausmus downplays the absence of so many players -- 15 at the start of WBC '17 -- but Verlander seems a little bit lonely. He'll be glad to see his teammates return with their war stories and swag.
"Yeah, it's difficult,'' Verlander said. "On the one hand, we've got a bunch of games where we're just getting our teeth kicked in. And on the other hand, we're not running out hardly anybody. No offense to the guys we're putting out there, but [there's] not much big league experience and then you're asked to come in and pitch against these big league lineups. It's tough to do.''
The Tigers are 4-12 with two ties through 18 games, but Ausmus isn't worried. The games he's focused on are against the defending AL champion Indians, who train in Arizona.
Cleveland went 14-4 in the season series last season, ultimately finishing eight games ahead of Detroit.
"They handled us pretty well last year,'' Ausmus said. "We're going to have to handle them back this year if we're going to make a run at the division. Simple as that. But I think we can. I'm not worried about it.''
Verlander looks great. That's as good of a place to start as any.