News emerged on Saturday that fans of the Detroit Lions had long expected. Veteran franchise quarterback Matthew Stafford had been traded to the Los Angeles Rams, bringing to a close what must be described, as tragic as it is for Detroit sports, as one of the better eras of football in Lions history.
Folks, it hurt us to write it as much as it did you to read it.
The most obvious recent comparison in Detroit sports, and one rapidly being debated on social media, was the 2017 deal that sent future Hall of Famer Justin Verlander to the Houston Astros for three prospects. It’s not every day that a true franchise player is dealt away after roughly a decade on the job.
Judging by the reactions on social media, and polling and commentary from our sister site, Pride of Detroit, new Lions GM Brad Holmes did pretty well in this deal. The Lions got the Rams first-round picks in 2022 and 2023, a third-round pick this year, and a youngish, if overpaid, quarterback in Jared Goff who can presumably fill the starting role adequately enough to bridge a rebuilding team with no short-term competitive aspirations to its next long-term QB.
Obviously the nature and business structure of these two sports are very different, making comparisons pretty tricky, but we’re doing it anyway.
Verlander v. Stafford
There are certainly some similarities as the two players are among the greatest pure arm talents their respective sports have produced. Stafford and Verlander were also similarly aged at 32 and 34, respectively, at the time of their trades. They also have a reputations for durability and toughness. The Tigers ace is arguably—hey C.C.—the most durable starting pitcher of this young century. At the time of his trade, Verlander had missed a grand total of just 20 starts in 12 years as a full-time starting pitcher, just about all of them in the first half of the 2015 season. Stafford checks in with extremely high marks for durability as well. Apart from the eight games he missed in 2019, Stafford made every single start for the Lions from 2011-2020.
Assuming things play out roughly as expected, the remainder of Stafford’s contract also compares pretty well with what Verlander was owed when Tigers GM Al Avila sent him to the Houston Astros moments before midnight on August 31, 2017. Both were slated to earn roughly $25 million in each of the two full seasons left on their deals, though obviously football’s roster size and financial structure is quite different. Finally though, no matter how good the starting pitcher, they’re incapable of having the same impact on their team as a quarterback does, simply because they aren’t going to take the ball in every single game, particularly in the postseason.
Despite that last point, Matthew Stafford is not Justin Verlander, either. The long-time Tigers ace owned Rookie of the Year, Cy Young, and Most Valuable Player awards, and even as of August 2017 should have had one, if not two, extra Cy Young’s to his credit in 2012 and/or 2016. He also had a host of brilliant postseason starts—and some failures—to his credit even before winning the World Series with the Asterisks of 2017. Justin Verlander is a lock to go into the Hall of Fame, and barring any unforeseen character clause issues, should get there pretty quickly once eligible. Matthew Stafford is just a talented quarterback who has never won major individual or team accolades, nor been considered among the very best at his respective position.
Where the comparison is sharpest then, is in what these two deals meant for their respective franchises. For both clubs, the deals were an acknowledgement that last ditch efforts to make a postseason run had come to a final endpoint. In dealing their franchise players, both the Tigers and the Lions hoped to accumulate enough future capital to produce a resurgent and talented young team within a few seasons. Whether this will work out for the Lions remains unknown, but first round picks are substantially more valuable in football than in baseball. Of course you still have to hit on them. As for the Tigers, their failure to acquire talent in the Justin Verlander deal remains the original sin of their rebuilding project.
The Verlander trade in retrospect
The 2017 agreement between the Tigers and Astros called for Detroit to contribute five million dollars of Verlander’s salary in both 2018 and 2019 to save Houston some money in the deal. In return, the Astros sent starting pitcher Franklin Perez, catcher Jake Rogers, and outfielder Daz Cameron to the Tigers. At the time, the return was viewed as somewhat light, but not egregiously so. The Tigers didn’t get either the Astros’ top pitching or positional prospect at the time, right-hander Forrest Whitley and outfielder Kyle Tucker. What they did land were one good prospect and two interesting ones with upside.
Perez would have been the closest thing comparable to a late first-round pick in late 2017. In fairness, Cameron actually was a first-round comp pick—37th overall—when the Astros drafted him out of high school in 2015. However by the time of the trade, his stock had slipped considerably. He was roughly the equivalent of a late second-round or high third-round pick at the time of the deal. Rogers could loosely be considered as the equivalent of the third-round pick the Lions also received for Stafford. Again, player development in baseball vs. football is so different as to be difficult to draw anything more than the vaguest of comparisons between them, but hopefully you get the idea.
Now, obviously the Lions’ new front office has to hit on their picks, or deal them for talent. Until they’re converted into players, and those players get some time to reach their full NFL potential, we’ll have no way of accurately judging how well this decision worked out for them. The NFL’s structure provides for a lot more flexibility in these regards than MLB does. Clearly it was time to deal Stafford, and while it’s perhaps a bit more arguable on the Tigers side, trading Verlander made plenty of sense at the time as well. But with three and a half years removed from the Verlander deal, the trade has turned out very poorly. Certainly the story isn’t fully written yet, but if we take an honest look at where the three players acquired are in their careers right now, this deal has been a disaster with only slender hopes of some ultimate redemption remaining.
Perez was only 19 years old at the time of the deal and very inexperienced after being converted from third base to pitching. There was a lot to prove in terms of his ability to hold up to a regular workload as a pitcher, but there was also an awful lot to like. He was a very precocious teenaged pitcher with a huge, well developed 6’5” frame, and advanced stuff, pitchability and control. Indeed many expected him to debut as early as late 2018. Instead, he’s barely pitched at all over the past three seasons, suffering from an unending series of shoulder problems that have allowed him to clock just 27 innings in the minor leagues since the trade. Now 23, Perez’s rare appearances have shown him still in possession of the stuff and command in evidence at the time of the deal, but there remain no signs that he can hold up to the physical strain of being a professional pitcher. The most optimistic of scenarios for him now appears to be a future as a reliever, where the workload could be somewhat mitigated, and even that requires a leap of faith to believe in.
As for Cameron and Rogers, both still seem capable of being part-time players who can help fill out a roster, but neither has any claim to look like a future starting player of even average caliber. Both have plenty of attributes, but their ability to consistently square up major league pitching is not one of them in either case. Cameron’s defense, speed, and surprising raw power are all potential force multipliers, as are Rogers’ arm, soft hands behind the plate, and above average raw power. Both could yet develop into above average major league players if they could cut down on the strikeouts and maximize their hard contact, but entering their age 24 and age 26 seasons respectively, expectations of major improvement in that regard are almost certainly misplaced.
Imagine where the Tigers would be right now if things had gone vaguely to plan. Even if Franklin Perez had developed into a solid mid-rotation starting pitcher while the other two faltered, we’d have one legit piece of a future contender in place and under cheap team control for say, five more seasons. If just one of Rogers and Cameron looked like average major league regulars, we’d be on even better footing in regard to the two most important skill positions defensively. Instead, the Tigers are idling through a fourth low energy offseason where nothing of note will be accomplished toward roster building other than the ongoing hopes of high draft picks and the odd deadline trade for prospect talent.
Trusting the process isn’t much fun
In retrospect, Tigers GM Al Avila probably wishes he could’ve traded for draft picks. Verlander was the golden goose in late 2017 for any team with World Series aspirations. Teams like the New York Yankees and Los Angeles Dodgers failed to deal for him, and quite likely cost themselves a World Series in the process, but the many differences in the two sports are in evidence here. High-end baseball prospects have become ever more coveted by teams trying control their costs, and in baseball it would be far easier to trade a late first-round pick than an elite prospect you’ve already invested years in developing. NFL teams have the colleges to do all that messy developmental work for them. The other result is that the endgame of a given deal tends to come a lot more quickly in baseball, because there are no picks involved that might redeem it down the road.
As a result, the Lions won’t be fully judged on how they did in this deal until all those picks have proven out, sometime in 2024. For Avila, the verdict became obvious a lot sooner, as by the 2019 season things were already looking grim only two years on from the deal.
In both cases, fans, as always, are the ones who catch most of the pain. Despite the relative popularity of the two sports these days, Verlander checked in a lot higher on the pain meter for fans because he’s arguably the second best pitcher of his generation and his trade was the final sign that an excellent era of Tigers baseball was truly at an end. Rationally we know that dealing away a valuable veteran is sometimes the only move that makes sense. But we’re asked to keep faith and hope for brighter days. It will take a while, but we’ll be rooting for things to work out much better for the Lions than they have the Tigers so far. The Detroit fanbase could really use something to rally around in the coming years.