How the Justin Verlander trade came together and what it means to Houston

The trade of Justin Verlander, likely Hall of Famer, supermodel husband-to-be and October-ready horse, almost never happened. It weathered a multi-week stalemate between the Detroit Tigers, who were unsure they wanted to deal the best pitcher in franchise history, and the Houston Astros, who were unsure they wanted to pony up in dollars and prospects what it would take to acquire him. It gained traction on Thursday afternoon, the last day the Astros could get a player to use this postseason. It looked increasingly likely as the sun set over Houston, a city that was ready to savor every bit of good news it could get. And it came to fruition in the minutes leading up to midnight ET, when Verlander declared himself ready to leave behind the only major league franchise he has known for the best team in the American League.

Deals like this often wind up in the coulda-been bin. That it actually happened – that the Astros received Verlander and $16 million to cover part of the $56 million remaining on his contract, which runs through 2019, for three well-regarded prospects: right-handed pitcher Franklin Perez, catcher Jake Rogers and outfielder Daz Cameron – stunned an industry that long disparaged Houston for its tendency to horde young players. That inclination, of course, had landed the Astros here, with a cadre of homegrown players in need of a frontline complement and a decision to make.

In recent weeks, the discussions inside the Astros organization sounded as one would expect. Some insisted that the team needed Verlander, price be damned. And others refused to fall prey to alarmism, reminding that the Astros were no different a team than the one that was every bit as good as the Dodgers in the first half. To which the reply, naturally, went: And now? Which was fair, seeing as the Astros’ record over the last 30 games was 11-19, the second worst in baseball. But then October is no longer merely the domain of dominant starting pitchers, and Verlander, at 34, comes with enough risk to damn the price-be-damned crowd.

Detroit Tigers starting pitcher Justin Verlander delivers to Colorado Rockies’ DJ LeMahieu in the first inning of a baseball game Wednesday, Aug. 30, 2017, in Denver. (AP)
Detroit Tigers starting pitcher Justin Verlander delivers to Colorado Rockies’ DJ LeMahieu in the first inning of a baseball game Wednesday, Aug. 30, 2017, in Denver. (AP)

Meanwhile, the Tigers, juggling all the permutations of their future, had settled on the most reasonable direction: rebuilding. It was understandably painful, considering Detroit’s success over the previous half-decade: four postseasons, four playoff series wins, one World Series appearance but no championship. Signing Verlander and Miguel Cabrera and Jordan Zimmermann and Justin Upton to nine-figure deals put them in rare financial territory, particularly for a mid-sized market. The Tigers prided themselves on how unique they were.

Coming to terms with a rebuild meant Upton, their star outfielder, was gone. He was traded to the Los Angeles Angels on Thursday afternoon. The rush to deal Verlander wasn’t nearly as acute. Upton conceivably could opt out of his contract this offseason. A strong market would have developed around Verlander this offseason, and the Tigers could have fetched a fair price for him.

And yet the Astros always were there, with Perez, a 19-year-old already at Double-A, agreed upon from nearly the beginning as an ideal centerpiece for any particular deal. Rogers, a defensive whiz at catcher who this season grew into a slugger, was a fine complement. Cameron, part of the Astros’ bonanza 2015 draft that included their current third baseman, Alex Bregman, and their best prospect, Kyle Tucker, is the son of longtime major leaguer Mike Cameron and similarly equipped, with power and speed and a glove for center field.

This was not easy for Houston, an organization built on patience and player development. Every winning team arrives at that juncture where principle meets urgency, and Aug. 31, 2017, after leveraging that principle into what remains the best record in the AL, urgency chalked up a victory.

The possibility of frittering away home-field advantage and having to face a five-game series against Boston or Cleveland – that is, against Chris Sale or Corey Kluber twice – makes holding onto that top spot in the league over the last 29 games entirely imperative. Since returning from the disabled list, the Astros’ ace, Dallas Keuchel, has been inconsistent. They don’t know what they’re getting out of Lance McCullers Jr. when he returns from the DL soon. And though the Astros have the AL West well locked up and understand the postseason is an unpredictable witch, ready to smite even those who don’t deserve it, the Charlie Morton-Brad Peacock-Collin McHugh rotation grab bag gave Houston as much agita as it did comfort.

Hovering over the discussions – over everything – was the plight of Houston after Hurricane Harvey. The Astros return to Minute Maid Park on Saturday and hope to bring the slightest semblance of normalcy to an area that won’t see it for weeks, months, years. It was not the impetus behind acquiring Justin Verlander, like the Astros could help heal Houston. But it came up in conversation. Plenty. As in: How cool would this be?

Very cool, it turned out. About 15 minutes after the deadline, Verlander spoke with the Astros, told them he was excited to join the team and declared himself ready to win some ballgames. For weeks, he had considered whether to waive his no-trade clause after more than 2,500 innings, 183 wins, 2,373 strikeouts, an MVP, a Cy Young and a couple second-place finishes, last year’s of which should’ve been a win. He hasn’t been the same pitcher this season, but his performances of late convinced the Astros: He can be. And their rotation will look a whole lot better with him in it.

The Astros return to Minute Maid Park on Saturday. (AP)
The Astros return to Minute Maid Park on Saturday. (AP)

So Astros owner Jim Crane, in the middle of the process, agreed to take on the $20 million a year Verlander would cost, and general manager Jeff Luhnow agreed to give up the prospects it would take, and the Astros’ clubhouse, so disappointed as August dawned, started September in some kind of fashion. The Tigers, who took a hard line on the prospect return despite Verlander’s big-money contract, were rewarded for their position, with general manager Al Avila fortifying a farm system that needs it.

As the Tigers lamented the end of one era and looked forward to the beginning of another, glasses were being poured by Astros people. Bourbon met ice. Pinot was swished. This was a terrible week for Houston. This was a great day for the Astros.

They hope one great day turns into another and another and another, that McCullers and star shortstop Carlos Correa return healthy, that they keep home field, that they vanquish the wild-card winner, that they capture the pennant, that Kate Upton joins George Bush as their most famous fans en route to their first World Series win. That for three hours a night, their city can distract itself from the vagaries of life and enjoy this final product that came together just before the clock struck midnight, just in the nick of time.