Justin Verlander Trade Would Propel Red Sox to the Top of AL Hierarchy

Jacob Shafer@@jacobshaferFeatured ColumnistNovember 22, 2016

DETROIT, MI - AUGUST 31:  Justin Verlander #35 of the Detroit Tigers pitches during the game against the Chicago White Sox at Comerica Park on August 31, 2016 in Detroit, Michigan. The Tigers defeated the White Sox 3-2.  (Photo by Mark Cunningham/MLB Photos via Getty Images)
Mark Cunningham/Getty Images

Justin Verlander and Boston Red Sox fans may not be on the best terms right now. After Verlander lost the American League Cy Young Award to Boston sinkerballer Rick Porcello, Verlander's fiancee, Kate Upton, voiced her displeasure via Twitter [warning: NSFW language].

While Upton's and, subsequently, Verlander's beef was mostly with the Baseball Writers' Association of America voters, Porcello and Sox nation were unavoidably swept up in the controversy. 

Here's something that would surely quash the issue: Verlander suiting up for the Red Sox next season.

It's only speculation at this point. We know, however, that the Detroit Tigers are "open-minded" about trading veterans to shed payroll, as general manager Al Avila said on MLB Now (via MLB.com). 

"I've talked to all the guys," Avila said. "[Miguel] Cabrera and Verlander and [Ian] Kinsler and guys like that just to let them know, this is just the way it is. It's part of the business. But not to worry about anything unless I call them."

Translating from GM speak: The Tigers are open for business.

Detroit GM Al Avila said he has "talked to" Verlander about the possibility of a trade.
Detroit GM Al Avila said he has "talked to" Verlander about the possibility of a trade.Mark Cunningham/Getty Images

Verlander should have multiple suitors. The pool of free-agent starting pitchers is comically shallow. And the 33-year-old right-hander is coming off an excellent season that saw him post a 3.04 ERA in 227.2 innings with an AL-leading 254 strikeouts. 

He's owed $28 million annually through 2019 with a $22 million vesting option for 2020, so he isn't exactly cheap. Detroit won't be willing to give him away, either. The Tigers will surely expect some legitimate young talent in return.

Enter Boston, which has a robust payroll, a deep minor league system and ties to Verlander via its front office.

Red Sox president of baseball operations Dave Dombrowski was at the helm in Detroit when the Tigers drafted Verlander in 2004 and was also there in 2013 when Verlander signed a five-year extension.

At the time, Dombrowski praised Verlander's stuff and durability and labeled him "one of the premier pitchers in baseball," per MLB.com's Jason Beck

Verlander's ERA ballooned to 4.54 in 2014, and he threw a career-low 133.1 innings while battling a triceps injury in 2015.

His 2016 bounce-back, though, should ease concerns about a decline. We're talking about a six-time All-Star who won the AL Cy Young and MVP awards in 2011.

Velocity isn't everything, but Verlander's average fastball sat at 93.7 mph last season, his highest mark since 2013.

Nick Cafardo of the Boston Globe listed the Red Sox as a possible landing spot for both Verlander and Cabrera. Boston has a David Ortiz-sized hole in the middle of its lineup, so Cabrera makes some sense.

The Red Sox could find an Ortiz proxy on the free-agent market, however. Edwin Encarnacion seems like a fit. Or there's reigning MLB home run leader Mark Trumbo. 

To get a top-shelf starting pitcher this winter, it's the trade route or bust.

Boston's rotation is headlined by Porcello and left-hander David Price.

Porcello posted Cy Young-caliber numbers (sorry, Kate), going 22-4 with a 3.15 ERA. Price was a mixed bag after signing a seven-year, $217 million contract. He led MLB with 230 innings and struck out 228, but he also paced baseball with 227 hits allowed and surrendered a career-high 30 homers.

Knuckleballer Steven Wright posted a 2.86 first-half ERA but landed on the disabled list in September with shoulder issues and missed the remainder of the season and the division series.

Young left-handers Eduardo Rodriguez (4.71 ERA in 107 innings in 2016), Henry Owens (5.19 ERA in 16 career big league starts) and 32-year-old right-hander Clay Buchholz (4.78 ERA in 139.1 innings in 2016) round out the crop of possible starters. 

David Price led MLB in hits allowed and surrendered a career-high 30 home runs in his first season with Boston.
David Price led MLB in hits allowed and surrendered a career-high 30 home runs in his first season with Boston.Jason Miller/Getty Images

If the Red Sox add a bat to an enviable offensive core that includes 24-year-old AL MVP runner-up Mookie Betts and All-Stars Xander Bogaerts (age 24) and Jackie Bradley Jr. (age 26), the current starting rotation should keep them competitive. 

With Verlander, though, Boston would vault into the firmament of surefire championship contenders. Here, let's stack Verlander, Porcello and Price's 2016 stats next to each other:

A Tantalizing Top Three...
PlayerERAIPSOWAR
Justin Verlander (DET)3.04227.22545.2
Rick Porcello (BOS)3.15223.02285.2
David Price (BOS)3.99230.01894.5
Stats courtesy of FanGraphs

That's three of the AL's top seven starting pitchers by WAR, to use a simple bit of statistical shorthand. If Price bounced back to the form that made him the Cy Young runner-up in 2015 or that won him the prize in 2012, look out.

It's unclear exactly what Boston would have to part with from a farm system Bleacher Report's Joel Reuter ranked No. 4 in the game. If the Sox were willing to eat all or most of Verlander's salary, they should be able to keep untouchable names like infielder Yoan Moncada and outfielder Andrew Benintendi off the negotiating table.

Boston could also pursue another ace, like the Chicago White Sox's Chris Sale, who is six years younger than Verlander and locked into a more affordable contract. The asking price for Sale, though, might include the Sox's top prospects as a starting point.

Oh, and consider this: Verlander owns a 3.39 ERA in 98.1 postseason innings and has a well-earned reputation as a big-game pitcher. The same can't be said for Porcello (5.66 career postseason ERA) or Price (5.54 career postseason ERA).

The Cleveland Indians are the defending AL champs until further notice. The Texas Rangers and retooling Houston Astros will make noise out West. The East, too, is competitive, with the Baltimore Orioles and Toronto Blue Jays coming off wild-card berths and the suddenly nimble New York Yankees laden with young talent. 

Boston, however, can gain separation. Yes, the Red Sox have shown indications of playing it safe this offseason, as I recently notedLanding Verlander may prove too tempting to resist, however.

At the very least, it would put those angry tweets squarely in the rear view.

   

All statistics courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com and FanGraphs unless otherwise noted.

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