Will Justin Verlander return to the Detroit Tigers? Pudge Rodriguez weighs in

Evan Petzold
Detroit Free Press

The Justin Verlander-Detroit Tigers saga is filled with historic memories, from no-hitters to World Series runs.

It can't really be over, right?

Maybe not.

The 37-year-old Verlander, currently with the Houston Astros, is set to enter free agency after the 2021 season, and the Tigers could be in the market for a veteran starter on a short-term deal — like Kenny Rogers in 2006 — to mentor the young arms in the rotation. The scenario makes too much sense not to consider.

"Coming back to the team he grew up with?" former Tigers All-Star and Hall of Fame catcher Ivan "Pudge" Rodriguez told the Free Press on Wednesday. "That's not a bad idea, to retire as a Tiger. That's where he started."

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Tigers catcher Ivan Rodriguez goes to the mound to talk to pitcher Justin Verlanader, who threw two wild pitches and loaded the bases with walks in the first inning of Game 5 of the 2006 World Series on Friday, Oct. 27, 2006, in St. Louis.

Verlander played 13 of his 16 MLB seasons for the Tigers (2005-17), racking up 183 of his 226 career wins. The right-hander won the American League Rookie of the Year and pitched the organization to the World Series in 2006. He secured the Cy Young and MVP in 2011, and in the following year, he helped the team back to the World Series.

On Aug. 31, 2017, Verlander was traded to the Astros — where now-Tigers manager AJ Hinch was at the helm — for three prospects. That year, Verlander finally won his elusive World Series. He added a second Cy Young to his resume in 2019.

[ Verlander wins World Series with Detroit still close to his heart ]

Then came the injury.

After one start in 2020, Verlander underwent Tommy John surgery on his pitching elbow in late September. With a 12- to 14-month timetable for recovery, he may have already thrown his final pitch for the Astros.

"I’m extremely disappointed, but I will not let this slow down my aspirations for my career," Verlander wrote on Instagram. "I will approach this rehab the only way I know, attack and don’t look back. ... I’m confident that with a proper rehabilitation program and my unwavering commitment that this surgery will ultimately lengthen my career as opposed to shorten it."

Former Tigers catcher Ivan Rodriguez is greeted by Justin Verlander after he threw out the first pitch before the game against the Red Sox on Friday, April 7, 2017, at Comerica Park.

Verlander, essentially missing two full seasons, should come at a bargain on the open market. He will be 39 years old when the 2022 campaign begins, and there aren't many pitchers who have bounced back from such a career-shaking surgery at his age.

But there's a chance Verlander has a few years left in the tank. He might not reach back to throw 100 mph ever again, yet he's smart enough to change his approach and outthink hitters.

"First of all, he needs to come back healthy," Rodriguez said. "Tommy John surgeries always take a long time. He's still with the Astros, and what he needs to focus on right now is to come back healthy and be the Justin Verlander that he was in the past."

If the Tigers were able to add Verlander, he could join a starting rotation that included Spencer Turnbull, Casey Mize, Tarik Skubal and Matt Manning. If Mize, Skubal and Manning develop as expected, that's a postseason-caliber rotation, with a future Hall of Famer counseling the crew.

[ What we learned from AJ Hinch: A Justin Verlander return in 2022? ]

Next winter's shortstop market is strong: Carlos Correa, Corey Seager, Trevor Story and Francisco Lindor. And the top offensive prospects within the farm system — third baseman Spencer Torkelson and outfielder Riley Greene — could be in the majors by next season, with catcher Dillon Dingler not far behind.

If owner Christopher Ilitch and general manager Al Avila show they're willing to spend on offensive upgrades to put the franchise in a position to reach the playoffs, it wouldn't be impossible to get Verlander on board.

[ Tigers owner believes in process, will spend when 'time is right' ]

"It's his decision," Rodriguez said. "Obviously, I'm sure if the Tigers offer him a contract after this season, he's going to consider it. But right now, in my opinion, he's probably not thinking about anything. He's thinking about getting healthy and back to the mound."

Justin Verlander of the Houston Astros celebrates with manager A.J. Hinch after defeating the Los Angeles Dodgers 5-1 in Game 7 to win the World Series at Dodger Stadium on Nov. 1, 2017 in Los Angeles.

There's another twist that makes this scenario seem possible.

Hinch said he developed a "great relationship" with Verlander while serving as his manager from the time he was traded in August 2017 through the end of the 2019 season. When Verlander learned Hinch got the job in Detroit this past October, the former AL MVP sent him a text message.

"There's no place like it," Verlander said, according to Hinch. "It's an incredible place of a loyal fan base that wants baseball played the right way, wants baseball played a winning way. And they have a deep-rooted history, love affair with the Tigers and English D."

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Verlander is 43-15 with a 2.45 ERA in 477 innings across 74 starts in his career with the Astros. During Hinch's final year in 2019, Verlander reached 300 strikeouts for the first time in his career across 223 innings. He had 21 wins (second most to his 24 victories in 2011) and a 2.58 ERA.

"He's an all-timer, Hall of Famer," Hinch said. "Incredible competitor. We had some incredible experiences together."

If the Verlander-Tigers relationship continues, it will ultimately come down to two factors.

1. Verlander loves Detroit.

2. Detroit — eager for a postseason push in 2022 — needs Verlander.

"He said nothing but incredible things about his experience here," Hinch said.

While catching up with Rodriguez, the Free Press asked him about the Tigers' rebuild, his son's MLB career and more.

Do the 2021 Tigers remind you of a particular team from your five-year stint with the organization? 

"When I got there in 2004. We developed a baseball team, and then, in two years, we went to the World Series in 2006. I think that's what I'm seeing right now. They want to go young. They want to see what these young players can do. And that's not bad. That's not a bad idea to do. Obviously, you have to get them to develop at the big-league level, and I think that's probably going to happen this year. They still have a great team. I see where the Tigers have a good pitching staff. When you have a good pitching staff, you're going to win a lot of games."

The rebuild is about to enter its fifth season. Considering the lengthy process, do you see a bright future for the Tigers?

"When you have a young team, you're going to have a team together for a long, long time. That's what Al Avila is doing. He's putting the young, talented players on the field this year to perform. I think that's what the fans in Detroit are going to see. They still have Miguel Cabrera and some veterans there, but I think the way that baseball is today, the Tigers are going to see a lot of young talented players on the field."

Speaking of Verlander possibly finishing his career in Detroit, do you wish you could have ended yours with the Rangers?

"No, I'm fine with my career. I have no regrets with anything. I still work for the Texas Rangers' organization. I'm not a player now, but I'm with their organization in the front office. That's more than enough. I played a long, long time there, and I'm very happy right now that I'm working with the Rangers."

Your son, Dereck, joined the Tigers in late August off waivers from the San Francisco Giants. Although he is now with the Colorado Rockies, was it exciting to see him get a chance with your former team?

"It was nice. I talked to (Avila), and I told him that he's going to be a good addition to the organization. Unfortunately, he got hurt. He hurt his elbow (at the alternate training site) in Toledo, just pitching there. He didn't have the chance to reach the big leagues (in 2020). That's part of baseball. Anyway, when the news came in, Al called me and told me that he's going to be one of the key pitchers for them. But, unfortunately, he got hurt and things changed a little bit."

Do you have any plans to return to Comerica Park for an appearance?

"I've done one or two or three appearances throughout year. I go there and do Q&A's at the ballpark and sign autographs. Before this pandemic happened, that's what I was doing for the Tigers. Right now, we don't have anything in plans, probably because of the COVID situation. Everything has slowed down. But I'm looking forward to the next call from the Tigers. It's a great team, great organization. I played five years, and the fans in Detroit are tremendous in the support they gave us when I was there was A-plus. That's why I have so much respect for the fans in Detroit."

Evan Petzold is a sports reporter at the Detroit Free Press. Contact him at epetzold@freepress.com or follow him on Twitter @EvanPetzold.