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Are the Astros Better Off Without Justin Verlander

We’ll miss him, but is there a better way to spend money to improve the team?

MLB: Houston Astros-Championship Parade Thomas Shea-USA TODAY Sports

Editor’s note: This is a guest post written by TCB member Daniel May.

On December 5, 2022, the Mets and Justin Verlander agreed to a contract worth $86 million over two years, with a third-year option. Justin Verlander is undoubtedly one of the best pitchers of his generation.

With three Cy Young awards to his name and a plethora of other accolades, you’d have to be brain-dead or a jealous ex-lover not to accept that he’s a first-ballot hall of fame. While keeping Verlander and adding quality position player-free agents would be ideal, the Astros have, comparatively speaking, limited resources. With that said, the Astros made the right decision letting Verlander walk and, hopefully, spending that money elsewhere. Although it is certainly hard to see him leave, the Astros can use the money they did not spend on Verlander to improve their hitting, specifically at catcher and leftfield.

A primer to free agency

Most of the free agent market comes down to two factors: value projections and precedent. Value projections are pretty easy to understand; regardless of the position, free-agent contracts usually pay about six to ten million dollars for every projected win above replacement (WAR). For instance, Jose Abreu’s contract is worth $58.5 million over three years, and he is projected to produce approximately seven WAR over the contract’s life, which means he is receiving roughly $8.3 million for every projected WAR.

This trend seems to hold steady across the league. According to a 2021 article by Ben Clemens, the league average $/proj. WAR from the 2018 to 2022 off-seasons was a relatively stable $8.13 million. Assigning a dollar value for the next season is relatively easy; the best predictor of future performance is… past performance. Thus, predicting the average annual value (AAV) of a free agent contract is pretty simple (especially on shorter duration contracts); just multiply the average annual projected WAR by 8 million, and, voila, you have a rough estimation of a free agent’s AAV.

Establishing fair market value for the AAV of the contract is fairly simple; however, to project duration, teams have to look at what comparable players have received. According to Fangraphs, Justin Verlander is projected to produce 4.2 WAR next season. Using the crude estimator from above, Verlander should be worth around $35 million AAV. However, because Max Scherzer received a deal worth three years, $130 million, his market value was slightly inflated. Teams tend to be willing to go over projected value to get the high-end free agents, especially when there is already a precedent for it, as was the case for Verlander. Perhaps $43 million per year is a slightly inflated but fair deal for the Mets; for the Astros, however, it would have been a massive overpay, considering the depth they have at starting pitching.

Relative value

Even if Verlander manages to post a solid four WAR season, that may not have directly translated into four more wins for our ‘Stros because replacement level is based on what the average AAA pitcher can give you (for reference, a team filled with replacement-level players would likely win about 49 games). A more realistic comparison for the loss of value from Verlander’s departure is his production compared to which player will pick up his innings.

Assuming the Astros stay with a six-man rotation, the most likely candidate is Jose Urquidy, who projects to produce 1.1 WAR over 157 innings. While it’s not a perfect comparison, it is likely that the difference between Verlander and Urquidy is 3 to 4 wins, with a price tag of $43 million.

Given that Jim Crane has hinted that he would be willing to spend slightly over the initial luxury tax, it doesn’t make sense to constrain hypothetical FA signings to the $233,000,000 threshold (although going over by $20 million is not realistic either). This gives the Astros approximately $40 million to spend on free agents for the rest of the off-season. The Astros should be able to use this money more effectively than if they gave it to Verlander.

Wilson Contreras

Wilson Contreras will likely get a deal worth approximately four years, $80 million. While this may seem like an overpay, remember that he is the best free-agent catcher available and can play more positions than just catcher. Contreras is projected to produce two more wins than the current starter, Martin Maldonado, he likely improves the team’s win total for a price of $10 million/per proj. WAR. Relative to win-dollar value, a Contreras deal wouldn’t be exceptionally cheap compared to Verlander’s contract; however, it does leave the Astros with more money to improve the team.

Brandon Nimmo: Because who wants to start Jake Meyers?

If the Astros give Contreras a deal worth 20 million AAV, they should be able to afford to give Brandon Nimmo a 5-year, $110 million deal. Not only is he projected to produce a wRC+ of 134 next season, but he also adds another lefty bat in the lineup. Furthermore, if the Astros do not sign another outfielder, their options in left field are sparse. They can give Jake Meyers another shot, but given his performance last season, it doesn’t make sense to give a player with such a low floor another shot on a championship team. If he were on the Rangers or Angels, fair enough, allowing him another year to develop would make sense, but the Astros are pushing for another championship.

Another option is to bring back Michael Brantley on a team-friendly deal; of course, if the Astros think he has recovered and is ready to play every day, that changes the calculus, but given that this isn’t the first time he’s had shoulder issues it’s hard to plan on that. With Nimmo in centerfield, Chas can slot over to leftfield.

An outfield consisting of guys named Chas McCormick, Brandon Nimmo, and Kyle Tucker not only sounds like the executive board at the frat I was never invited to join but also like a damm good defense.

Assuming Nimmo is worth four more wins than Meyers, or any other outfielder on the 40-man roster, his $/win total comes in well below the $8 million average. Meyers may have a bounce-back season and narrow the gap, but to give him a starting spot involves considerable risk as he has yet to prove he can be a productive everyday player.

Conclusion:

If the Astros sign Nimmo and Contreras, they will likely have a starting lineup consisting of the following:

1B: Abreu

2B: Altuve

SS: Pena

3B Bregman

RF: Tucker

CF: Nimmo

LF: McCormick

C: Contreras

DH: Alvarez

Although letting Justin Verlander walk will certainly hurt the Astros’ pitching, if the Astros spend the money wisely, their lineup will likely improve disproportionately. Keeping Verlander would have likely added 3-4 wins over the next option, most likely Urquidy, but adding Nimmo and Contreras will most likely add 5-6 wins. Spreading the money around to two players also reduces risk because it is less likely that both players will get hurt simultaneously rather than one. Especially when considering Verlander’s advanced age and injury history.

Furthermore, the Astros have the pitching depth to soften Verlander’s departure. If the Astros go to a 5-man rotation, Urquidy moves to the bullpen, and Hunter Brown is now the 5th starter, then the loss of value from a Verlander departure may be significantly lower than the previously stated 3-4 wins.

The Astros do not have the same depth in their position players, and thus, spending money on free agency to improve that area has a higher value add.

(Editor’ s note: We will be offering limited edition FOCO Astros World Series bobbleheads here at TCB at exactly 10 CT. They will disappear very quickly so be here at 10 to get yours.)