DENVER - Justin Upton held the key.
As the days dwindled closer to the Detroit Tigers accepting their fate as a rebuilding team – which they did in earnest Thursday afternoon by trading Upton to the Los Angeles Angels – Upton’s opt-out clause loomed largest over the situation at hand.
And as Upton continued to crush the ball in the second half this season, it became evident he would exercise that opt-out and head to free agency with the hopes of finding a team that lined up better with his top priority of winning.
Upton joined the Tigers two seasons ago for that reason, though the $132.75 million didn’t hurt. And as this season spiraled out of control, it became blatantly clear to Upton — and other veteran players — that Detroit no longer is a destination for winning.
What Upton’s departure means is the Tigers have no choice but to embrace a rebuild, as painful as it might be. The front office has hinted at it dating to last October, but with the trade market opposing them in the off-season, was unable to start the process sooner. Now, that process is in full force.
Later Thursday, the Tigers dropped another stunner. They traded right-hander Justin Verlander in the final minutes to the Houston Astros for three more prospects.
There was thought within the organization, one that didn’t carry much optimism and wasn’t shared by many, that the Tigers, with still a number of talented veterans, could execute the kind of quick turnaround other teams have experienced.
That maybe, if many more things went right than wrong next season, they could be back in the playoff race.
Verlander expressed a similar sentiment a couple of weeks ago when looking around the clubhouse at Globe Life Park in Arlington, Texas, speaking of the players who could return and professing his belief that any Tigers team he played for would be expected to win.
But that expectation is no longer, not with Upton headed to the Angels, who waived former Tigers centerfielder Cameron Maybin to make room. And not with Verlander headed to the Astros.
How do you feel about the #Tigers committing to a tear-down rebuild?— Freep Sports (@freepsports) August 31, 2017
The truth is, if there was any chance the team could have competed next season, it would have been with Upton, its best offensive player this season, in tow. Even then, it likely wouldn’t have been enough. But now, with Upton playing his hand, it’s a certainty he will not be the last veteran out the door.
The Tigers moved Verlander near midnight Thursday. They will move second baseman Ian Kinsler, too, when his value becomes more favorable in the off-season than it was this trade deadline season.
The name-brand recognition of the team will have disappeared by next season, leaving only first baseman Miguel Cabrera and young right-hander Michael Fulmer. But it’s for the better.
The Tigers couldn’t keep toeing the line between rebuilding and competing any longer. The process likely should have started two seasons ago, but the allure of winning with this group of talented veterans was too much. In that off-season, the Tigers signed Upton and right-hander Jordan Zimmermann, contracts that would be weighing down the organization significantly into the future.
Now, they’ve dumped one of those contracts, creating serious salary relief and taking the biggest step into a full-scale rebuild, which they have avoided for so long.
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© 2017 Detroit Free Press