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Astros Bet on Past Performance and Assume Risk with Justin Verlander’s Return

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This starting staff received its reinforcements in the form of a familiar face.

Seattle Mariners v. Houston Astros Photo by Robert Seale/MLB Photos via Getty Images

Honestly, I thought Justin Verlander had thrown his last pitch for the Astros on July 24, 2020. The odds of the veteran right-hander, who is fresh off from Tommy John surgery rehab, felt low heading into this offseason. I mean, it wasn’t exactly a zero percent chance that a reunion between the two sides would occur, but more indications pointed to a seemingly inevitable departure. James Click’s recent comments about the rotation only cemented those feelings of mine. Needless to say, I had some doubts.

Those reservations were quickly extinguished, though, when the news of Verlander’s return broke. Despite pitching in only six innings since the 2019 World Series, the two-time Cy Young winner secured a one-year, $25 million commitment, with a player option for a second season. This option is probably exercised for all intents and purposes, mainly since it includes another $25 million. Considering how Noah Syndergaard secured a one-year, $21 million agreement with the Angels, the $25 million commitment on an annual basis for Verlander, who has been worth 14 wins since his arrival in Houston back in August 2017, feels appropriate. Multiple contenders were likely willing to offer similar contracts to lure him to their respective locale; however, it does appear Verlander’s relationship with Jim Crane played a prominent role in the reunion.

For the Astros, Verlander’s return, in theory, solidifies the top half of a rotation that sorely missed an ace’s presence in both the ALCS and World Series when Lance McCullers was sidelined. It is fair to speculate how the last two postseasons would’ve ultimately panned out if he were available in those pair of Octobers.

Of course, the bigger question about Verlander’s return is how effective he’ll be coming off Tommy John surgery as he enters his age-39 season. The Astros are betting on Verlander’s upside to return to his 2017-19 version. With him reaching 94 to 96 miles per hour in his recent 25 pitch showcase, it is clear why multiple clubs were expressing interest in his services. But this is somewhat uncharted territory for any pitcher at this age, even for Verlander. While it is unrealistic to expect an encore performance of his 2019 Cy Young season (223 IP, 2.58 ERA, 6.4 fWAR), the Astros would likely be pleased with at least 70 to 75 percent of that production in 2022. Anything better than that level, and the organization has to be thrilled. That is what they’re betting on.

In looking ahead to 2022, Houston ought to feel confident about their chances from a starting pitcher perspective.

  • Justin Verlander
  • Lance McCullers
  • Framber Valdez
  • Luis García
  • Jose Urquidy
  • Cristian Javier
  • Jake Odorizzi

With seven starters on the staff, the organization can ease Verlander back while working the rust off. Of course, this plan is contingent on Click and the front office retaining all of those starters. Don’t forget that a compelling case could be made to trade from an area of surplus to address a position of need, namely at shortstop or center field. I would caution against that plan of action as this team used nine different starters to traverse an entire 162-game season in 2021. I’d much rather have one too many pitchers than one too few when it counts.

As it pertains to risk, it appears rather obvious. For one, there is not much telling how Verlander’s elbow holds up following Tommy John surgery at his age. While it is true that he hasn’t yielded to traditional aging, it will eventually come for him. The question isn’t a matter of if, but when. Also, with that ill-fated two-year, $66 million contract no longer on the books, but only to replace it with essentially a two-year, $50 million agreement is a risk in itself. Not that it can’t be money well spent, but another injury saga to Verlander would again hamper this club’s ability to maneuver on a tighter budget. Plus, Carlos Correa’s long-term status with the club remains up in the air, and Verlander’s presumed $25 million average annual salary cuts into the budget for the star shortstop. The money for Correa could become a moot point if the tax threshold is raised from $210 million, though.