Going into the Trade deadline, I argued against trading for Justin Verlander. At the time, my reasoning looked sound. I did not want to let go of the Astro’s then-top prospect, Drew Gilbert. Although the odds of him developing into anything more than a two-WAR player are pretty low, the odds that he would provide immense surplus value to the Stros were extremely high. Even though Houston only has to pay $23 million for Verlander’s services in 2023 and 2024, it will be difficult for Verlander to create a significant amount of surplus value for the team. Considering that one win above replacement is worth approximately $10 million, and the Astros will pay Verlander $17 million in 2024 if Verlander is worth 3 WAR, his surplus value will only be around $10-15 million.
For every WAR Gilbert and Clifford produce in their pre-Arb years, it will effectively be an automatic $10 million in surplus value, not to mention what they produce in their salary-suppressed Arb years. Jim Crane is not Steve Cohen, so spending money efficiently is absolutely necessary to sustain long-term success. So, the Astros will likely be the long-term losers of the Verlander trade. However, not all wins are created equally, and it sometimes makes sense to trade three potential wins and millions in surplus value three years from now for one win today. Of course, there is some hindsight bias, but I have changed my mind about the trade.
Justin Verlander pitched 68 innings for the Astros in 2023 and was worth 1.4 fWAR. The pitcher that he replaced, Brandon Bielak, pitched 80 innings in 2023 and was worth a mere .1 fWAR. Of course, in a small sample size, it is impossible to nail down just how many wins Justin Verlander added over Brandon Bielak. But it is safe to say that it was approximately one win, which is significant considering that a tiebreak decided the AL West race.
When the Astros traded for Verlander, it was impossible to know just how close the AL West race would finish up; however, on the day of the trade, the Astros were a mere half-game behind the Rangers. As previously stated, one WAR is generally worth ten million bucks, but that is assuming an even distribution. How much is a win worth when you are in a division race that was likely to, and eventually was, be decided by less than two wins? I imagine every front office has some kind of evaluation for wins in a given context, but as a fan, it is hard to put a number on a deep playoff run and a division title.
Trading Drew Gilbert and Ryan Clifford may reduce the Astros’ win total in 2026 by three to four wins, but even if it does, it is possible that those wins will not matter anyway. If losing Gilbert takes the Astros from 84 wins to 80 in 2026, then it is likely the Stros would have missed the playoffs regardless. However, we knew that adding an extra win by Verlander was likely to be decisive in 2023. Although the Astros finished short of winning the World Series this year, they still made a deep run and won another division title. It is unlikely that the Astros would have been able to accomplish these things without Verlander. That is worth sacrificing a few potential wins a few years from now.