There’s a one-in-three chance Justin Verlander will win the American League Cy Young Award on Wednesday. Two things will happen if he does.

One: A trophy case that already features a Cy Young alongside a Rookie of the Year Award and a Most Valuable Player Award will look even better. Two: His trade value, which skyrocketed in 2016, will inch even higher.

Thing No. 2 is relevant in light of current events in the Detroit Tigers front office. Following the Tigers’ second straight postseasonless campaign,’s Buster Olney warned in October that Detroit would be in a trading mood this winter.

In recent days, general manager Al Avila has been busy saying “Yup” to every news outlet within earshot.

“Our organization has been working well over its means for several years, for our market size, if you compare our payroll with the rest of baseball,” Avila told’s Jerry Crasnick, referencing a payroll that has ballooned from under $100 million in 2007 to $198.6 million on Opening Day in 2016.

“It’s gotten to the point, quite frankly, where it can’t continue to go up and up and up,” Avila continued. “At what point do you say, ‘Enough?’ We have to start making some adjustments. Whether they’re subtle or bigger depends on what teams out there are looking for and how some of our guys may fit them.”

The road ahead for the Tigers involves getting younger and cheaper. They can’t do this by waiting on young talent that’s already in place. The Tigers graduated AL Rookie of the Year finalist Michael Fulmer to the majors in 2016, but he was the lone standout in a farm system that Baseball America had ranked No. 26 in MLB going into the year.

Detroit’s first step forward must involve trimming some old and expensive fat. Hence why every big-money Tigers star is rumored to be available, though Verlander and Miguel Cabrera carry the most intrigue.

One is a two-time MVP and lifetime .321 hitter who still has a strong case for the Best Hitter in Baseball crown. The other is a decorated ace who put two injury-marred seasons in 2014 and 2015 in the rearview mirror with a return to form in 2016. Verlander put up a 3.04 ERA in 227.2 innings and led the AL in strikeouts (254) and WHIP (1.00).

When it comes to trade value, however, one of these things is not like the other.

Cabrera is awfully good, but he’s also 33 years old with seven years and $220 million remaining on his contract. In early November, Craig Edwards of FanGraphs found that Cabrera isn’t likely to offer any excess value beyond that. Detroit may therefore have to eat some of his contract in order to flip him for young talent.

Verlander is in a different boat. He’s owed a relatively reasonable $84 million over the next three seasons, and Edwards projected him to provide excess value on top of that. Hypothetically, the Tigers should be able to move his entire contract and get some young talent in return.

In a normal offseason, the availability of aces on the open market would be a threat to push back against Verlander’s trade value.

But this is no normal offseason. The best free-agent starting pitcher is Rich Hill, who is equal parts talented and fragile. After him, it’s a dark and decrepit landscape that, thanks to a surprise twist, doesn’t even include Jeremy Hellickson anymore, with the Philadelphia Phillies’ announcement he accepted their qualifying offer.

As such, the only force that could lower Verlander’s trade value is pessimism about whether he has more seasons like 2016 in him. He is also 33, after all. One great season at this point in his career arguably wasn’t enough to undo the disappointment of the prior two seasons, in which he had a 4.08 ERA in 52 starts.

Or, interested parties will be optimistic—as they should be in this case.

Verlander was successful in 2016 because he was overpowering. He went from striking out 7.2 batters per nine innings in 2014-15 to striking out 10.0 batters per nine innings in 2016.

What’s more, his average fastball was 93.5 mph—short of his 95.6 mph peak in 2009, sure, but better than his 92.3 mph average in 2014 and his 92.8 mph average in 2015.

And per Brooks Baseball, the revival of Verlander’s velocity started strong and got even better throughout the year:

After he struggled to get back to full strength in 2014 following offseason core muscle surgery and then battled an oblique injury at the outset of 2015, this was a good sign that Verlander’s previous issues had less to do with age and more to do with physical ailments that are now behind him.

“All of a sudden, it becomes fun again,” the 6’5″ right-hander told Jeff Passan of Yahoo Sports in September. “I was allowed to compete with the other team as opposed to competing against myself.”

Of course, optimism about Verlander’s velocity can only be so ironclad. At his age, the possibility that it could decline again can’t be ignored.

But even if it does, two things could ensure his dominance doesn’t also diminish: spin and location.

According to Baseball Savant, Verlander threw a higher percentage of high fastballs in 2016 than he had since 2009. Batters hit just .145 against them. That’s related to how, in addition to improved velocity, his fastball had the highest spin rate of any four-seamer thrown by all pitchers with at least 2,000 pitches.

However, this was only Verlander doubling down on a trend he started with inferior velocity the previous year. He held hitters to a .146 average on high heat in 2015, with one factor being that there was little difference in the spin rates of Verlander’s 2016 fastball and his 2015 fastball:

  • 2016: 2,565 RPM
  • 2015: 2,500 RPM

In January, Mike Petriello of noted that Verlander wasn’t the first pitcher to succeed with high-spin heaters up in the zone. That’s been Chris Young’s weapon of choice his whole career. And no matter how much Verlander’s velocity may decline over the next three years, it’s not likely to get to a point where it matches Young’s mid- to high 80s “heat.”

Thus, Verlander’s 2016 wasn’t just a return to form. It was a return to form with a good fail-safe in the event he can’t maintain that form going forward.

This is not to characterize him as the only Detroit star who’s worth monitoring as the rumor mill continues to go round and round. Cabrera shouldn’t be ignored, and Ian Kinsler and J.D. Martinez may be most likely to be moved.

But in Verlander, the Tigers have just the thing that can serve both their needs and the market’s needs: a big-name ace who’s worth a high asking price.

Let the bidding begin.


Stats courtesy of and FanGraphs unless otherwise noted/linked. Payroll and contract info courtesy of Cot’s Baseball Contracts.

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