The not-so-crazy idea: Verlander to the bullpen

Would Justin Verlander change his role for a short while to help the Detroit Tigers win a World Championship?

Would Justin Verlander change his role for a short while to help the Detroit Tigers win a World Championship?

A few weeks ago I caught a lot of flack on Twitter when I suggested that the Detroit Tigers should trade for David Price.

There were a few fans who found it “stupid” and “bizarre” that I would suggest that the Tigers acquire a starting pitcher.

“But they don’t need starting pitchers!”

“How does that help the bullpen?”

Now that the Tigers have acquired Price in a three-team deal that sent Austin Jackson and Drew Smyly packing, I feel a little better about myself. Not that the Twitterverse is where I get my daily dose of self-esteem. At the minimum, at least I know I’m not crazy, and at the maximum, maybe Dave Dombrowski is reading my tweets and blog.

But if someone in the Detroit front office is reading, let me remind them of Part II of the plan I started to hatch six weeks ago:

If Justin Verlander continues to struggle he should be put in the bullpen for the stretch run and the playoffs.

Is that crazy? I don’t think so.

Let me start by saying this: I would rather JV right himself, regain his form, and stay in the rotation. A team is better off having their best pitchers start than they are having them come out of the pen, all things being equal. But if Verlander continues to have that one bad inning per start (which is why his ERA has fluttered around 4.50 – 5.00 since May), the Tigers should move him into a bullpen role.

Here’s why:

1) Verlander still has very good stuff when he’s on — he can hit 96-98 MPH, master his curve and handcuff lineups for innings after inning — but it occurs less often than it used to. It’s been that mid-start “hiccup” that has caused his troubles. But, if Verlander knows he only has to throw 15-25 pitches out of the pen, he can unleash and he won’t tire.

2) In a “closer/fireman” role, Verlander can be used in clutch situations to protect a lead or a tie game. These are exactly the sort of situations in which the Tigers have struggled in 2014. Joe Nathan has been a bust and Joakim Soria has struggled since arriving via trade last month. Nobody outside of their immediate family has that much confidence in those two to close out games in the postseason. Something else should be tried if the Tigers want to win the title that has eluded them during this run of playoff appearances.

3) Verlander has a closer mentality. This guy is a competitor and he wants the ball when his team needs a win. Remember that look Verlander had when Papa Grande blew Game Four in the 2012 ALDS against the Oakland A’s? He carried that killer mentality into Game Five and shut the A’s down. He did it again last postseason,and during his peak in 2011-12 JV went deep into games and completed more games than anyone else. He’s a finisher. But, at 31 his stuff isn’t as dominant or consistent as it once was. However, if he can harness his mechanics and attack opposing batters for an inning or maybe even two out of the pen, JV could be dominant again.

4) Teams still fear him. Sure, some of the luster has come off of Verlander, but opposing teams still mark their calendars when they see they’re facing him. He’s a former Cy Young and MVP winner and one of the most recognizable players in the game. Opposing batters know that Verlander will go after them. He’d still command that respect out of the bullpen, and like John Smoltz (who the Atlanta Braves moved to the pen in mid-career), Verlander could see a revival in his form with a change in roles, even if it was short-term.

5) It’s worked before. In 2012, the San Francisco Giants took Tim Lincecum, a two-time Cy Young winner, and put him in their pen for the postseason after he struggled in the regular season. Lincecum made five relief appearances for the G-Men and was brilliant. He allowed just three hits and one run in 13 relief innings, including 4 2/3 no-hit innings out of the pen against the Tigers in the 2012 World Series. There’s precedent for such a  move, and relieving is less taxing than starting, as Lincecum showed when he had a similar down year.

I’m not suggesting that Justin Verlander isn’t good enough to be a starter anymore. What I’m saying is that 2014 Justin Verlander has shown a propensity for having one bad inning per outing, for struggling with his command at some point, often the second or third time through the batting order. As a reliever, JV wouldn’t have to face opposing batters twice. He’d come in with the game on the line or to slam the door on a win. He’d know he could let it all loose.

With Price in the rotation, the Tigers have four excellent starters who can shoulder the load in the postseason (Max, Price, Anibal Sanchez, and Rick Porcello). Porcello has obviously matured and I think in a seven-game series he’d do fine with one or maybe two starts. Sanchez and Scherzer both showed how great they can be in the postseason last year, and Price pitched a complete game to clinch the last playoff spot for the Rays in 2013. With that quartet pitching well, the Tigers don’t need Verlander to start in October, not if they are unsure what they’ll get from him.

I admit that it’s possible that Verlander will repeat what he did last season when he “clicked” and pitched brilliantly in September, carrying it through in the playoffs. If that happens, fine. Porcello can be the odd man out and he can be used out of the pen. But Verlander’s stuff is better suited for a closer/fireman role than Porcello. JV still brings high heat and he has more experience striking out batters in big situations. I think Verlander would excel in the role.

There’s one problem, however.

I don’t know if Verlander would go for it. He’s very proud, and a move to the pen might rub him the wrong way. But. if management explained to JV that it was only for the stretch run and the postseason, as a push to win the whole shebang, he might go for it.

On Thursday when he announced the Price trade, Dombrowski said, “I want to win, I want to win now.”

How much do the Tigers and Justin Verlander want to win a World Series? Do they want to win enough that their highest paid pitcher and superstar would change his role to help the team reach that goal?

We may find out, or maybe I’m just some crazy guy with a blog and a Twitter account.