Detroit Tigers: Revisiting The Justin Verlander Trade

ANAHEIM, CALIFORNIA - JULY 31: Jake Rogers #34 of the Detroit Tigers celebrates his solo homerun, to take a 1-0 lead, over the Los Angeles Angels during the third inning at Angel Stadium of Anaheim on July 31, 2019 in Anaheim, California. (Photo by Harry How/Getty Images)
ANAHEIM, CALIFORNIA - JULY 31: Jake Rogers #34 of the Detroit Tigers celebrates his solo homerun, to take a 1-0 lead, over the Los Angeles Angels during the third inning at Angel Stadium of Anaheim on July 31, 2019 in Anaheim, California. (Photo by Harry How/Getty Images) /
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The Tigers traded a Hall-of-Famer and have nothing to show for it.

Today is the three-year anniversary of the Justin Verlander trade. It was a rare August blockbuster (though we didn’t hear about it until it was officially September), equal parts shocking and inevitable, and the inflection point for two franchises.

For the Detroit Tigers the trade marked a definitive end of more than a decade of unfulfilled World Series aspirations. For the Houston Astros it was an official declaration of championship viability.

The trade has been an unqualified success for Houston. Verlander helped the Astros win the World Series in 2017 and led them on deep playoff runs in 2018 and 2019. He then signed a two-year extension, but his legacy was already cemented in Houston.

Verlander picked up his second Cy Young award last season, and added a third career no-hitter for good measure. In just over two seasons with the club he provided 16 bWAR for the Astros. In the same time the entire Detroit Tigers pitching staff combined for 22 WAR.

The nature of August deals (which no longer exist) meant the Tigers were never going to get immediate results from their trade, but the return seemed fair at the time. In Franklin Perez, Daz Cameron, and Jake Rogers Detroit landed a young pitcher with mid-rotation potential, a first-round outfielder with bloodlines, and one of the best defensive catchers in the minors.

This was to be Al Avila’s defining trade as General Manager; one that would provide the foundation for the next Tigers contender.

But it’s three years later, and Tigers fans are still waiting for the future to arrive. The only good news for Detroit is they have finished paying Verlander the $16 million in salary they agreed to eat.

So what went wrong? Let’s take a look at each player and see.

Trade Return

Daz Cameron

Background – Daz Cameron was a very famous prospect as an amateur. It certainly helped to be the son of 17-year MLB veteran Mike Cameron, but the kid was making a name for himself with impressive performances on the high-school showcase circuit. Some of the luster had worn off by the 2015 draft, with scouts considering him an average player with good instincts, rather than the tools goof they once saw. Still, Houston drafted him in the first round and gave him the 5th largest signing bonus of the draft

At the Trade – Cameron struggled in his first season-and-a-half in pro ball, and in 2016 he was even demoted from Low-A. He returned to that level in 2017 and his woes continued, but something clicked in the middle of the season, and after the all-star break he hit .332/.406/.552 with 8 home runs and 17 steals. The talent seemed to be shining through for Cameron.

Since – Detroit sent Cameron to High-A Lakeland for 2018, and he held his own, batting .259/.346/.370 in a pitcher-friendly league. After 58 games the club promoted him to Double-A Erie, where he exploded out of the gate, hitting .375 with 7 extra-base-hits and 4 steals in his first 12 games. He cooled off after that, but was still solid, and in August the Tigers promoted him to Triple-A Toledo.

It looked like Cameron was on the fast track to Detroit, where he’d be the center fielder of the future. But then he stalled in 2019. He didn’t get along well with former Mud Hens manager Doug Mientkiewicz, and he batted just .214/.330/.377 with an alarming 28.8% strikeout rate in what was the biggest offensive year in International League history. He had a solid run in the Arizona Fall League, the Tigers added him to their 40-man roster, and he played a bit in spring training, but Covid-19 essentially ruined Cameron’s chances for a bounceback 2020 season

There’s still hope Cameron can become an average MLB outfielder, but fans will likely have to wait at least one more year to see him.

Franklin Perez

Background – Originally a third baseman, Perez trained with former Tigers shortstop Carlos Guillén and switched to pitching as a 15-year-old. Houston signed him in 2014 for $1 million, and he proved to be remarkably precocious, showing a strong four-pitch mix and command beyond his years.

At the Trade – Perez made quick work of the low minors, graduating to the Gulf Coast League in his first pro season, and then posting a 2.84 ERA in Low-A in 2016. He was strong again in 2017, holding High-A hitters to a .191 batting average over 54.1 innings. At the time of the trade he had already made six solid starts in Double-A as a 19-year-old. He was a consensus top-50 prospect, and the unquestioned centerpiece of the deal for Detroit.

Since – Injuries are always a concern with young pitchers, but no one could have predicted this. Perez missed three months of 2018 after suffering a lat injury in spring training. He returned, but threw just 19.1 innings before shoulder inflammation ended his season. He was still added to the 40-man roster, but then chronic, undefined shoulder troubles limited him to just 7.2 innings in 2019.

He was seemingly healthy, if a bit rusty in spring training this year, but Covid-19 has essentially cost him a third consecutive season. Any progress has been hidden away in Toledo, and the Tigers are still being conservative with him ($). Perez once looked like the future anchor of Detroit’s rotation, but he lost so much development time it will feel like a minor miracle if he can carve out a career as a middle reliever.

Jake Rogers

Background – The Astros selected Jake Rogers in the 3rd round of the 2016 MLB Draft out of Tulane, and he was generally considered the best defensive backstop in the class. There were serious questions about his bat, though a surge in power and walks as a junior helped raise his floor.

At the Trade – Rogers had a decent short-season debut in 2016, but then a 2017 swing change designed to generate more fly balls led to a bit of a breakout. At the time of the deal Rogers was hitting .263 with a .351 on-base percentage and 18 home runs in 110 A-Ball games. He looked like Detroit’s catcher of the future.

Since – The Tigers sent Rogers to Double-A Erie for all of 2018, and he produced roughly average offensive numbers while maintaining his strong defensive reputation. Sent back to Erie to begin 2019, Rogers put up a .923 OPS and was quickly promoted. He was holding his own in Triple-A Toledo when the Tigers called him up late last July to replace the struggling Bobby Wilson.  Rogers was clearly overwhelmed at the big-league level, finishing the season with a .125 batting average and a 40% strikeout rate, while playing surprisingly poorly on defense. Al Avila later admitted the team had called him up too soon.

The Tigers signed Austin Romine in the offseason, and Jake Rogers remains at the alternate training site in Toledo. According to this Detroit News report from Chris McCosky, that is where he’ll stay:

"Avila said catcher Jake Rogers, barring an injury to either Romine or Grayson Greiner, will likely stay in Toledo for the remainder of the season. If MLB allows rosters to expand for the final few weeks, which is not expected right now, then maybe Rogers would get promoted."

Meanwhile, Lynn Henning tweeted this last week:

Rogelio and I have a common refrain on our podcast: Teams tell you what they think of players.

They don’t do it with press releases or sound bytes, but with assignments and leaks. This doesn’t apply to service-time manipulation, but that’s not an issue with Rogers.

That prospect inexplicably repeating High-A? Not a prospect. The reliever sticking in Triple-A despite amazing stats? Doesn’t have what it takes to retire big leaguers.

And that catcher of the future? Well, if he’s not caddying for a solid backup like Romine, and can’t beat out Grayson Greiner and his a career 52 wRC+, and is losing the hype war to Eric Haase, a 27-year-old who Detroit purchased after Cleveland designated him for assignment, then what do you have? Probably not the catcher of the future.

Conclusion

Al Avila has made at least one solid trade. But as Tigers fans watch the Chicago White Sox surge into contention on the backs of trade acquisitions Lucas Giolito, Eloy Jimenez, and Yoan Moncada, it’s understandable if they feel underwhelmed.

The Detroit Tigers traded away a Hall of Famer. They were never likely to get a commensurate return, but after three years the outlook is bleak. The core of the club is now found elsewhere, and all they have left from Justin Verlander is a Maybe, a Hopefully, and a Probably Not.

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