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Morosi: Verlander's durability to be tested after hernia surgery
Odds are, Justin Verlander will have a good — maybe great — 2014 season. The Detroit Tigers expect him to participate in spring training despite the sports hernia surgery he underwent Thursday. If Verlander has anything to say about it, he will start on Opening Day for the seventh straight year.
But Verlander is a $180 million pitcher, and surgery for a $180 million pitcher is unsettling news indeed. If anything, Thursday’s revelation highlighted Verlander’s previously pristine medical record and the Tigers’ narrowing window to win the championship that owner Mike Ilitch covets.
Verlander, in fact, is the second American League MVP on the Tigers’ roster on whom the renowned abdominal surgeon Dr. Bill Meyers has operated this offseason. Miguel Cabrera was the first. This means two things: Dr. Bill Meyers ought to receive a full playoff share if the Tigers reach the 2014 postseason, and this is a reality-check winter for the franchise.
Verlander turns 31 next month. Cabrera will do the same in April. Between them, they have accounted for three MVP awards and one Cy Young (nearly two) in the past three seasons. They are elite players at the apex of their powers. Now begins the grueling work of trying to stay there, with occasional help from a surgical knife.
Detroit’s supporting cast is strong, one of baseball’s best. But it is changing, and not necessarily for the better. Prince Fielder, indomitable protector of three straight MVPs, is gone to Texas. The steady Victor Martinez is more than capable of hitting behind Cabrera — if his 35-year-old knees sustain themselves during the last year of his contract. Max Scherzer, the reigning Cy Young winner, is entering his final season before free agency with no extension in sight.
Jim Leyland led the Tigers to four postseason berths in eight years, including three straight ALCS appearances. But this gracefully (yet undeniably) aging cast now belongs to Brad Ausmus, a promising manager yet to fill out his first major league lineup card.
Leyland will be remembered as one of the greats of his generation, a potential Hall of Famer. But his time in Detroit could have unfolded very differently were it not for considerable good fortune: In 14 combined seasons under Leyland — eight for Verlander, six for Cabrera — they spent a grand total of zero days on the disabled list.
Ask any general manager or manager for his New Year’s wish, and the answer will be identical: Give me a season in which my best hitter and best pitcher are healthy all season, and I’ll take my chances. For Leyland, that came true every single year. Now Verlander and Cabrera are recovering from surgeries on the wrong side of 30. Ausmus is not guaranteed to have the same luck as his predecessor. Logic suggests he almost certainly won’t.
Since 2006, Verlander is one of only three pitchers to start at least 30 games every year without visiting the DL, according to STATS LLC. The others are finesse types, Mark Buehrle and Bronson Arroyo. Verlander is the opposite, leveraging his 6-foot-5 frame to sling 98-, 99-, and sometimes 100-mph fastballs every fifth day.
Verlander’s 1,760-2/3 innings are the second most in baseball since he joined the Tigers’ rotation on a full-time basis in 2006. CC Sabathia is the only pitcher to throw more, the effects of which were evident during a 2013 season in which he regressed badly at the tender age of 32. Cabrera is tied for sixth in the majors with 940 games played since arriving in Detroit. Baseball executives fantasize about having one superstar with that level of reliability. The Tigers have had two.
The good news for the Tigers? Dr. Bill Meyers graduated from Harvard.