Top 25 Baseball Stories of 2017 — No. 9: Justin Verlander, Yu Darvish Dealt at the deadline(s)

Craig Calcaterra
NBC Sports

We’re a few short days away from 2018 so it’s a good time to look back at the top 25 baseball stories of 2017. Some of them took place on the field, some of them off the field and some of them were more akin to tabloid drama. No matter where the story broke, however, these were the stories baseball fans were talking about most this past year.

Every year there is talk of a contender making a big deal for a front line starting pitcher. Every year there are a couple of also-rans with front line starting pitchers who could or should be dealt. Often those deals don’t happen for various reasons. This past summer, however, we saw two aces dealt, and both of them helped their teams reach the World Series.

The Dodgers were already cruising along quite nicely, leading the NL West by 14 games when they acquired Yu Darvish from the Rangers. However, their ace, Clayton Kershaw, was on the disabled list at the time and it was not 100% certain when he’d be back at full strength. With every other cylinder firing nicely and the Dodgers poised to make a deep run in the playoffs, the Los Angeles brain trust didn’t want to chance things. They traded away a nice package of prospects — Willie Calhoun, A.J. Alexy, and Brendon Davis — to get Darvish.

At the time Darvish had a 4.01 ERA with a 148/45 K/BB ratio in 137 innings across 22 starts for Texas. That’s not what he used to be, but the Dodgers felt that, with a few adjustments, he could return to his 2012-14 form. And, despite some time on the disabled list following the trade, he did improve after arriving in Los Angeles, lowering his ERA and seeing his strikeout rate spike and his walk rate dip in nine starts in August and September.

The Houston Astros were likewise cruising in their division by the end of July. Even so, when the non-waiver trade deadline passed with them making no moves of consequence, some Astros players publicly groused about how they were disappointed that the front office didn’t pull out all the stops to add a starter. By the end of August, however, the Detroit Tigers finally resigned themselves to a rebuild and convinced Justin Verlander to waive his no-trade rights and accept a trade to Houston. The Astros got the starter they sorely needed and the Tigers got pitching prospect Franklin Perez, outfield prospect Daz Cameron, and catcher Jake Rogers.

Verlander was, at one time, the best pitcher in baseball, winning the 2011 Cy Young and MVP Awards, and dominating pretty consistently for close to a decade. Some injuries and some mileage on the odometer had caused him to fall off in recent seasons however. At times — such as the second half of the 2016 season — he looked like his old dominant self. At other times, he looked more like a third or fourth starter than an ace. Which Verlander were the Astros getting?

Turns out they got 2011-vintage Verlander and watched him put up an insane line down the stretch. In five regular season starts he went 5-0 and allowed only four runs on 17 hits in 34 innings while striking out 43 and walking only five. He continued to dominate in the postseason, winning two games over the Red Sox in the ALDS and beating the Yankees twice — holding them to one run over 16 innings and striking them out 21 times — while winning the ALCS MVP Award.

The Astros and Dodgers would, of course, meet in the World Series. Verlander and Darvish would not meet face-to-face, but the former clearly out-pitched the latter.

Verlander wasn’t dominant. He allowed three runs in six innings while taking a no-decision in the Astros Game 2 win and then was hung with the loss despite allowing only two runs over six innings in Game 6. That was far better than Darvish, however, who was absolutely shellacked in Games 3 and 7, ultimately allowing nine runs — eight earned — in three and a third innings. It’s possible that he was tipping his pitches. It’s certain that that he didn’t get the job done.

Darvish is now a free agent and, his World Series meltdown notwithstanding, he’s still likely to get a plum deal to anchor a contender’s rotation. Verlander, who once was thought to be one of the more overpaid players in baseball, now looks like a relative bargain for the Astros, who will pay him $56 million over the next two seasons. His five-start stretch run is unrepeatable over two full seasons, but if he’s even close to the pitcher he showed that he can still be, these next two years could constitute the final push that puts his Hall of Fame case over the top.

Whatever happens with either of them, their trades in the summer of 2017 will form a large part of their legacies.

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