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Mike Ilitch, Greg Smith, and Justin Verlander: the three keys to Detroit's baseball turnaround

Justin Verlander signed a five-year contract extension with the Tigers today that will keep him in Detroit through at least the 2019 season. While the entire organization played a role in this event, three people in particular are responsible for Verlander's place in the organization today.


"Today's gonna be a good day."

These are the words that I said to myself at 7:35 a.m. when I discovered that my bagel was a crisp golden-brown and not the tarred, blackened mess I expected when the smoke alarm had gone off roughly 20 seconds prior. My smoke alarm, like Jason Grilli circa 2008, can be a little sensitive. I put cream cheese on the bagel, filled up my coffee mug, and drove to work.

Family matters

Ten years ago, you couldn't pay free agents to come to Detroit to play baseball. Literally.

Now, they're not only coming here by choice, they're practically busting down the doors trying to get in. Prince Fielder signed with the Tigers in January 2012, a move that most people thought would never happen because of Prince's feud with his father Cecil, a former Tiger great. Torii Hunter flew to Detroit this offseason and scheduled a meeting with the Tigers brass to inform them of his desire to play for the defending AL champs. Matt Tuiasosopo e-mailed Dave Dombrowski to ask for an invite to Spring Training after speaking to former teammate Doug Fister about the club. Today, Justin Verlander turned down the opportunity to meet with other clubs as a free agent in two years to sign a five-year contract extension with the Tigers.

Make no mistake, Mike Ilitch's deep pockets have played a big role in this seismic shift over the past decade. But it is his approach to business, his desire to win, and his emphasis on family values that has made Detroit a hot destination for baseball players in the last ten years. And once they get here, they don't want to leave.

Greg Smith, Detroit hero

Many people will thank the San Diego Padres -- and by extension, ex-GM Kevin Towers -- for not selecting Verlander first overall in the 2004 MLB Amateur Draft. While the Padres' selection, shortstop Matt Bush, was surprising, it wasn't because of Verlander. Many scouts were afraid of Verlander's high walk rate in college, despite his electric arm. Guys like Jered Weaver, Jeff Niemann, and Philip Humber were all rated higher than Verlander at the time.

Not in Greg Smith's mind. Smith, the Tigers' director of scouting at the time, saw Verlander's potential, and he was able to convince the Tigers brass to swing for the fences by taking the guy with the highest upside. Hey, after losing 119 games the year before, they had nothing to lose, right?

It's safe to say that they knocked this one out of the park.

Game changer

In 2008, Verlander lost 17 games with a 4.84 ERA for a Tigers team that finished 74-88, last in the AL Central. The Tigers, preseason title favorites, collapsed under the weight of expectations. Verlander, in particular, was showing the same lack of command that scouts knocked him for in 2004. His mechanics were lacking, and it showed in his release points.



Instead, Verlander once again proved the scouts wrong by fixing his mechanics. He came back in 2009 with a more over-the-top delivery, resulting in a more consistent release point.



As for the stats? The 19-9 record, 3.45 ERA, and career-high 10.09 strikeouts per nine innings in 2009 speak for themselves, as do the improvements he has made every year since.


Five hours after eating my bagel (it was excellent, in case you wondered), I walked back into our physical therapy clinic after my lunch break. The TV, usually on the Tennis Channel by this point in the day, was still on ESPN. Expecting to hear Chris Broussard or some other talking head scream about why LeBron James' current haircut was the best haircut in the history of all basketball haircuts, I was instead greeted by some excellent news.

Justin Verlander signs 7 year/$180 million contract with Tigers.

I was right. Today was definitely a good day.