Justin Verlander snapped an unusual streak on Saturday evening when he whiffed the Indians’ Bradley Zimmer to end the fourth inning. The strikeout was Verlander’s first of the month, following a rare strikeout-free appearance against the Indians last Sunday. Until Zimmer’s three-pitch strikeout, the Tigers’ right-hander had faced 41 straight batters without fanning a single one, a streak that dated back to the sixth inning of his start on June 27.
Given the way Verlander pitched the rest of the night, however, it’s unlikely that there’s any significant cause for concern. He touched 98 m.p.h. with his fastball and held the Indians scoreless through four innings, eventually giving up a run on Michael Brantley‘s RBI double in the fifth. His lone strikeout to Zimmer seemed to open the floodgates, and he exited in the seventh inning after issuing six hits, four walks and six strikeouts.
It’s been an uncharacteristically rough season for the 34-year-old, who’s coming off of a Cy Young-worthy campaign in 2016. He entered Saturday with a 4.96 ERA, 4.3 BB/9 and 8.4 SO/9 through 98 innings, and his 92 strikeouts are only good for 24th-most among qualified major league starters — just 162 shy of the league-leading mark he set last year. While he’s struggled to produce the sub-4.00 ERA of seasons past, Verlander is still drawing substantial interest around the league and is expected to command a hefty return should the Tigers decide to push forward with their rebuild this summer. He’ll look to bounce back in the second half when he returns to the mound in the next couple of weeks.
The Rays were busy over the weekend, trading starter Jake Odorizzi to the Twins, designating All-Star outfielder Corey Dickerson for assignment, and then picking up C.J. Cron in a deal with the Angels. The Rays saved about $4 million — Odorizzi’s $6.3 million less Cron’s $2.3 million salary — and picked up a prospect. They’re still on the hook for Dickerson’s $5.95 million salary until they can find a trade partner, which seems likely.
Those are some head-scratching moves if you’re a Rays fan or a member of the Rays. Dickerson hit .282/.325/.490 with 27 home runs, 62 RBI, and 84 runs scored in 629 plate appearances last season, part of which resulted in his first trip to the All-Star Game. Designating him for assignment is strictly a financial move, assuming he can be traded. The Rays are currently operating with a payroll below $70 million. This comes just a week and a half after Rays ownership proposed the public footing most of the bill for the club’s new stadium. And the Rays had traded third baseman Evan Longoria — then the face of the franchise — to the Giants earlier this offseason.
Longoria expressed sympathy for Rays fans for having to put up with this. Via Andrew Baggarly, Longoria said of the curious Dickerson move, “I just kind of feel sorry for the Rays fan base. … I’m not going to take too many shots but it’s pretty obvious that guy is a valuable player and didn’t deserve to be DFAd. Corey was our best player last year.”
Longoria isn’t quite on the money there. By WAR, Dickerson ranked fifth among position players on the team, according to Baseball Reference. FanGraphs is also in agreement. Still, it’s indisputable that Dickerson, who turns 29 years old this May, more than pulled his weight. The Rays do not have a surfeit of starting outfielders, so it wasn’t like they were making room for other capable players. Mallex Smith, who put up a .684 OPS in 282 PA last year, is slated to start in left field at the moment. Designating Dickerson for assignment, as well as trading Longoria and Odorizzi, were simply cost-cutting decisions.
The Rays’ M.O. has been part of the problem leading to the current stagnant free agent market (sans Eric Hosmer‘s eight-year deal on Saturday). Teams like the Rays, Phillies, Reds, and Tigers have been explicitly putting out non-competitive teams in order to facilitate a rebuilding process. Longoria is right to express sympathy for Rays fans, who see their favorite team worsening a roster that went 80-82 last year. The Rays haven’t finished at .500 or above since 2013 and doesn’t figure to halt the streak this year.