DETROIT — Justin Verlander is doing his best to take Max Scherzer’s departure in stride.
Yes, the Detroit Tigers will miss Scherzer, one of the game’s top right-handers. But his exit via free agency was by no means a shock.
”Obviously you don’t want to see a teammate go, but you can kind of see it coming too,” Verlander said Thursday. ”I think once that deal was turned down last year, I think the probability of him coming back went way down. That’s the nature of the sport.”
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Scherzer signed with the Washington Nationals this week after a five-year run in Detroit that included four division titles, a Cy Young Award in 2013 and strikeout totals that even Verlander had a hard time keeping up with. Now the Tigers will try for a fifth straight AL Central championship with a retooled rotation that also lost Rick Porcello. This may be the first time in a while that Detroit isn’t a solid favorite to win the division.
Scherzer turned down a lucrative deal with the Tigers before last season, and he ended up signing a $210 million, seven-year contract with the Nationals.
”Obviously, you lose a player of that caliber, it’s always tough. I think this organization’s been preparing for that since last year, and I think if anybody, this staff has the capability to lose a guy of that caliber and still not miss a beat,” Verlander said at the start of the Tigers’ winter caravan. ”I think we’re still going to be one of the best staffs in baseball, if not the best. You’ve just got to perform. I know I’ve got to pitch better and I will.”
Verlander was the American League MVP in 2011 and remained dominant the following year as well, but his performance dipped a bit in 2013, and last year he went 15-12 with a 4.54 ERA. At this time last year, Verlander was recovering from core muscle repair surgery, so he’s hoping a more normal offseason will help.
The rotation has been the backbone of the Tigers’ success over the last few seasons, but it looks a lot different than it did at the beginning of 2014. Detroit acquired star left-hander David Price at last year’s trade deadline, sending starter Drew Smyly to Tampa Bay in that deal. The Tigers then traded Porcello in the offseason for Boston outfielder Yoenis Cespedes.
Detroit also traded for right-handers Shane Greene and Alfredo Simon this offseason, and it’s those two newcomers who now face the daunting task of replacing Scherzer and Porcello.
”I have a lot of expectations for myself, and they’re probably higher than most people’s expectations for me,” said Greene, who went 5-4 with a 3.78 ERA as a rookie for the New York Yankees last year.
Price may be the key to Detroit’s division title defense. The Tigers can look forward to having him for a full season, although he can become a free agent at the end of it.
Price went 4-4 in 11 starts with the Tigers, but he ended last season on a good note, shutting down Minnesota in a division-clinching victory in Game 162. He also pitched well in his lone playoff start, although the Tigers were swept by Baltimore in the AL Division Series.
”We want to pick up, not where we left off last year, but we want to continue the success that the Tigers have had in recent years,” Price said. ”We want to build on that as well and be the last team playing in October.”
Losing Scherzer was certainly a setback, but it doesn’t have to be a crippling one.
”I talked to Max the day it kind of broke. Max is a good guy. He’s got a great sense of humor,” Detroit manager Brad Ausmus said. ”I was happy for him. I kind of knew, it kind of seemed all along that he wasn’t going to be coming back here as a Tiger, so I’m just glad he went to the National League.”
NOTES: Ausmus said he’s been in touch with slugger Miguel Cabrera, who had offseason surgery on his right ankle. ”He’s out of the boot, as of a week ago maybe. He’s in shoes,” Ausmus said. ”He’s got another appointment mid-February, just before spring training, and we’re hoping that all goes well, and the doctor says he can really start doing some stuff on it.”