Fast-climbing Verlander may top AL's rookie list

The Baltimore Sun

Justin Verlander's not going to lie.

He wasn't completely thrilled when he was selected second overall by the Detroit Tigers in the 2004 amateur draft.

"The '04 draft was a mixed bag of feelings," Verlander said. "Obviously, at that point, the organization wasn't in a prime position to go for a pennant run. Or it didn't seem like it. But then again I had the opportunity to make it up here pretty quickly."

Verlander, a Virginia native who was a star at Old Dominion, was half right.

He got to the big leagues quickly - making two spot starts with the Tigers last year - and now he's likely headed to the playoffs.

Signing Verlander in October 2004 was tricky. The Tigers nearly cut off negotiations, before eventually agreeing to a five-year deal worth, with incentives, between $4.5 million and $5.6 million.

Nearly two years after officially becoming a Tiger, Verlander is moving toward becoming a star. The rookie has used his 100 mph fastball and good control (58 walks and 121 strikeouts) to post a 16-9 record and a 3.63 ERA in 29 starts.

"It's pretty exciting, but I didn't come into this situation to fail, by no means," Verlander, 23, said. "I expected to succeed; at what that would be, I didn't have any idea."

In a crowded Rookie of the Year field that includes starting pitchers Francisco Liriano of the Minnesota Twins and Jered Weaver of the Los Angeles Angels, Boston Red Sox closer Jonathan Papelbon and Orioles right fielder Nick Markakis, among others, Verlander has emerged as the leader.

But not everything has gone smoothly for the 6-foot-5 right-hander. He was 13-4 with a 2.69 ERA through July. Since, he's 3-6 with a 6.04 ERA. He has given up six earned runs in each of his past two starts - indicating that he might be hitting the rookie wall.

He is just two seasons removed from college, and he pitched only 130 pro innings before this season. He's up to 181 innings this year, so it'll be interesting to see what he has left for the postseason.

Clement a closer?

With Papelbon's shoulder injury making it likely he'll join the starting rotation next year, the Red Sox are in the market for a closer. So is it possible they could convert injured starter Matt Clement to the role? Clement and general manager Theo Epstein had the same response: Let him pitch again before giving him a role.

Clement (5-5, 6.61 ERA), who will make $9.5 million next year, hasn't pitched since mid-June because of arm trouble but could get in a game this week. He expects to be a 2007 starter - if healthy.

"Obviously if they want me to try something, I don't have much choice," Clement said. "But I still feel like I have the stuff and the makeup to be a starting pitcher."

Quick hits

The Chicago White Sox likely will be the fourth World Series champion since 1995 not to make the playoffs the next season. ... Last week, Angels owner Arte Moreno guaranteed at least one big move in the offseason via trade or free agency. Wonder if buddies Alfonso Soriano and Miguel Tejada have a private bet as to who's headed to Hollywood?

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