That the Cubs are trying hard to trade for a starting pitcher is far from surprising. Even if their entire rotation didn’t take huge step back in 2017, it’s still the most obvious position in need of an upgrade, in both the near and long-term.
One of the more recently and heavily rumored targets, Justin Verlander, seems to be staying firmly on the radar. We originally caught wind of Verlander’s potential availability back in June, when Jeff Passan reported that multiple front office executives expected him to hit the market soon.
But things got more serious after that.
On Monday, Jon Morosi tweeted that the Cubs were not only interested in Verlander, but that they actually asked the Tigers about his availability (along with catcher Alex Avila, but that’s a separate story). Given where each of the Tigers and Cubs are in this particular season and overall (organizationally), the rumor isn’t too outlandish. In fact, given the time of the year, this is somewhat serious smoke.
Naturally, the Tigers then floated the seemingly mandatory and annual “Oh, we’ll trade player X, but only for a big, big, big return …” shtick, and things quieted down a bit after that.
So the question is, where are we now?
Well, FanGraphs’ Jeff Sullivan wrote that he doesn’t necessarily see a Verlander trade (to anyone) as all that likely. In fact, he sees a whole lot of reasons why it probably won’t happen at all.
After wading beyond the so-called “soft reasons” (such as: Verlander and Detroit’s interest in keeping him a Tiger for life), Sullivan dicsovers some real roadblocks in the way of a trade.
First of all, his salary. Verlander is owed roughly $14 million the rest of the way this year, plus $28 million in each of the next two seasons (plus a $22 million vesting option for 2020). Now, to be fair, Sullivan points out that the salary wouldn’t be as much of an issue if Verlander was pitching like he did last season, but that’s clearly not been the case.
But even if he was pitching well, that’s still a whole lot of annual salary to lob on top of a team’s payroll, especially in the post-new CBA world where the salary cap figures to be obeyed much more seriously. So it’s not as much about the Cubs (or any team’s) willingness to pay him, but rather their strategic ability to do so.
But don’t discount the performance problem either. Verlander has made 17 starts this season, and has earned a 4.96 ERA with a 4.37 FIP and 5.03 xFIP. Those are not just “not-2016” numbers, those are just downright bad. Sullivan digs deeper. Using a 17-game rolling measure, Sullivan discovers that Verlander’s K/BB ratio is as low now as it has ever been, while his hard contact rate is up higher than ever. That’s a truly terrifying combination, and suggests he’s really not fooling anybody.
But despite his many struggles, there are actually plenty of reasons for optimism … sorta.
Verlander is actually throwing harder this year than he did last season. So, even at 34 years old, you don’t have to really worry that he’s lost some zip. Why does that matter? Well, instead of an irreversible problem, like lost velocity, it is possible that Verlander may be dealing with something mechanical, something he can fix. If the Cubs coaches/front office/scouts have notices something, too, they may be more willing to pull something off.
And, to be clear, this isn’t all academic.
Bruce Levine’s latest at CBS Chicago reports that one of the Tigers’ top talent evaluators has been following the Cubs lately, with specific connection to a deal for Verlander.
Moreover, one NL scout hears that Verlander is very much available and could even stand to benefit from a move to the NL where he’ll face one less “hitter” and probably come out of games earlier (that’s not nearly as convincing as a mechanical change, in my opinion, but it’s probably not a non-factor, either).
Additionally, Levine points out that with John Lackey, Jake Arrieta, and Miguel Montero’s salaries all coming off the books at the end of the year, the Cubs could probably fit the remaining $70 million into their books without a problem (query whether that’s the best use of $70 million in salary space, but it’s not wrong).
Sahadev Sharma also writes about possible Cubs trade targets, and discusses Verlander among the “legit target” candidates, together with Jeff Samardzija (more on him here) and Sonny Gray (more on him here).
In the end, there’s still a lot of unanswered questions. 1) How good is Verlander this year? 2) How good will he be next year? 3) Will the Tigers eat a ton of salary for a better return? 4) What sort of return are they really looking for? 5) And, most importantly, is the overall Verlander package better than anything else the Cubs have on the table?
I don’t think we’ll find the answer to any of these questions soon, but one thing’s for sure: this is a real rumor with a ton of smoke. We’re not there yet, but it has all the fixings of an impending obsessive watch. Stay tuned.
Reminder: Brett (and me, too, in part!) will be blogging for many, many hours at the trade deadline this year, if we raise enough money for Make-A-Wish, so, you know, DONATE!
— Brett Taylor (@BleacherNation) July 6, 2017