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Tigers' Verlander recalls draft

The SportsXchange

Justin Verlander waited on that golden June day in 2004 much like Thursday, knowing he wouldn't be in suspense very long.

The Old Dominion ace figured he'd be selected in less time than it takes one of his 99 mph fastballs to cross home plate.

"I wanted to be No. 1," Verlander said of his pre-draft thoughts. "I knew once the draft got close that I wouldn't go past No. 3. And if I wasn't No. 1, then Detroit was a great fit."

The San Diego Padres picked first that year, with Detroit reaping the rewards of a 109-loss season to choose second. The Padres made the kick-yourself-in-the-pants decision to take local -- and greatly cheaper -- shortstop Matt Bush, a move that was widely criticized even before the fluid dried on the whiteboard.

Verlander thought he might drop to the Mets at No. 3 if the Padres didn't take him because he'd had more contact with them, while the Tigers stayed in the relative background.

"I felt if the Tigers took me, they didn't have the best (pitching) staff, so I had a chance to get there quickly," Verlander said.

The big righty played the "What If?" game on occasion, and, in his typically self-confident fashion, didn't see either franchise floundering with him on board.

"The Padres might be pretty good (if they had drafted me)," he said. "I'm not going to say that one pitcher can make a difference. I also think how things might have changed in New York. I know I would've been big quicker in New York. I think it took me longer in Detroit. It took me until a couple of years ago."

Only a handful of pitchers have done "The Verlander," the Rookie of the Year, Cy Young, MVP, All-Star game combo that Verlander reached two years ago in his Cy Young/MVP season.

What really puts a player on the national stage is excellence over time, and Verlander's arrival was advanced by carrying the Tigers to consistent playoff appearances.

"It was only after I had done something that only eight other players have done that I became (recognized) nationwide," Verlander said. "But looking back, the way things are now, I wouldn't change a thing. I like it here and being with the same team is important to me."

The Tigers and Verlander pushed negotiations to the end before his father intervened and the sides agreed Oct. 25, 2004. He signed an extension when he became aribitration eligible and just re-upped with Detroit for five more years with an option for 2020 that vests if he finishes in the top five in the Cy Young Award voting for 2019.

Scouting reports from 2004 described Verlander as having erratic control due to an inability to repeat his delivery. The Major League Baseball report said Verlander was "a franchise type pitcher; No. 1 starter; overpowering stuff; will get there quick."

He did that. Verlander spent one season in the minors, during which he made two cameo starts for Detroit that showed he needed a lot more than a 100-mph heater. He arrived for good when Jim Leyland came to manage in 2006.

"I knew who we had coming back," Leyland said of the decision to bring rookies Verlander and reliever Joel Zumaya north out of Spring Training. "I didn't know how they'd do, but I knew they had a chance to be pretty good."

Verlander had a flaw in his delivery that Detroit wanted to address. He landed a little short with his front foot and, while it didn't slow down his fastball, it produced some unnecessary stress on his arm and shoulder.

Former major-league pitcher Jon Matlack, then the minor league pitching coordinator, corrected it right away.

"He got me landing softer on my front side," Verlander said. "It was the only adjustment they made, and it had an immediate impact."

Mike Rojas, Detroit's current bullpen coach, was Verlander's manager at Single-A Lakeland.

"All the good ones make adjustments quickly," Rojas said. "That's one of the reasons they're so good. He was overpowering. He was like a man among boys. Right at the All-Star break I called (the front office) and told them he deserved to go to Double-A right away."

Verlander's eye is on the Hall of Fame. He makes no apologies for that and for the track he's laid out for himself.
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