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Farewell to Justin Verlander; where do the Astros go next?

Houston literally loves Justin Verlander.

MLB: Houston Astros-Championship Parade Erik Williams-USA TODAY Sports

When Justin Verlander arrived at the waiver deadline — yes, that was once a thing — in late August 2017, the Astros were cruising towards their first AL West title with championship aspirations on the mind. The pressing question at the time was whether a “declining” Verlander would be enough to push that roster over the top in October. Well, after five years, a bit of reinvention, and some turbulence along the way, I think it is fair to say that the mission was accomplished with a career revival and multiple pieces of hardware, including two AL Cy Young awards (2019, ‘22) and two World Series titles (2017, ‘22), to show for his time in Houston. There ought to be nothing but cheers for the future Hall of Famer the next time he returns to Minute Maid Park.

When the news broke about Verlander’s agreement with the Mets (two years, $86 million plus a third-year vesting option), it was a bittersweet development. For myself, it is always difficult to watch a pitcher as accomplished as Verlander sign elsewhere, no matter how persuasive the argument is regarding roster optimization and payroll efficiency. It also isn’t like the Astros couldn’t use his services for another two seasons, despite any possible regression from his last two full seasons. Even with all that projected pitching depth in December, one can never have enough of the actual thing in July.

But, when considering that same payroll efficiency once the fan-based emotions calm down, it is understandable why Jim Crane likely didn’t feel comfortable paying $43 million per season for a pitcher who turns 40 before the start of next season. If I ran a baseball team and weren’t intending to exceed the first tax threshold, I wouldn’t pay Verlander $43 million per season. Of course, due to the rumored contract’s term of two years, it isn’t like the deep-pocketed Mets will regret this one too much if Verlander’s performance turns south. But I’d expect some regression in the future, especially in the number of home runs allowed, if his home run to fly ball ratios provide any helpful hints.

  • 2017: 11.5%
  • 2018: 11.1%
  • 2019: 16.0%
  • 2022: 6.2%

Below are the league average rates, dating back to 2017.

  • 2017: 13.7%
  • 2018: 12.7%
  • 2019: 15.3%
  • 2020: 14.8%
  • 2021: 13.6%
  • 2022: 11.4%

It is interesting to note how Verlander allowed the third-highest number of home runs with 36 in 2019, 28 of which were solo home runs, compared to only 12 total in 2022. The wild part to me was that he won the Cy Young in both seasons!

Regardless of what lies ahead in 2023, Verlander’s performance this year was enjoyable. Not only did he bounce back from Tommy John surgery, but he also played at one of the highest levels of his storied career. His 2022 season will always be remembered within the lore of the franchise.

So, where do the Astros go from here?

Excluding payroll concerns, Houston likely felt confident with their overall pitching depth, especially in the rotation, to mitigate the loss of Verlander better than most clubs. Framber Valdez, Cristian Javier, Lance McCullers Jr., Luis Garcia, Jose Urquidy, and top pitching prospect Hunter Brown remain a top-five rotation at its best. If Crane plans to utilize the majority of his remaining budget (~$41 million) under the first tax threshold, then adding another hitter or two, preferably a left-handed bat who can play in the outfield, seems like the appropriate next step.

Editor’s Note: Limited Edition FOCO Astros championship bobbleheads will go on sale here at The Crawfish Boxes today at exactly 10 AM CT. Don’t wait. They will be gone almost instantly.