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Astros: Could Justin Verlander close when he returns?

HOUSTON, TEXAS - OCTOBER 23: Justin Verlander #35 of the Houston Astros is taken out of the game against the Washington Nationals during the seventh inning in Game Two of the 2019 World Series at Minute Maid Park on October 23, 2019 in Houston, Texas. (Photo by Elsa/Getty Images)
HOUSTON, TEXAS - OCTOBER 23: Justin Verlander #35 of the Houston Astros is taken out of the game against the Washington Nationals during the seventh inning in Game Two of the 2019 World Series at Minute Maid Park on October 23, 2019 in Houston, Texas. (Photo by Elsa/Getty Images) /
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Could Justin Verlander become the Houston Astros closer later this season?

Houston Astros ace Justin Verlander continues to attempt to work his way back this season after it was suspected he could be out for the year. While some might see this possibility as a pipe dream, the pitcher himself is not one of them, and the coaches are probably smart enough not to doubt him.

Manager Dusty Baker said Monday that Verlander threw 20 pitches on Sunday and afterward “said he felt pretty good.” There’s no word on a potential timetable for his return or what kind of role he might have when and if he’s ready, and Baker hasn’t commented on what his thoughts would be.

Of course everyone would love for Verlander to move back into the rotation and be his typical 110-pitch self. But that may not be realistic with him being 37 years old and possibly facing a significant elbow issue. So here’s an idea: What if he pitched in relief, specifically as the closer?

Out of the Ordinary?

It would be a new venture for Verlander, who’s never pitched in relief in the regular season in his career. He’s only come out of the bullpen once in the postseason, and that was back in the 2017 ALDS against Boston. We’re not even sure if he would be open to the idea, but he wouldn’t be the first future Hall of Fame starter to make a temporary move to the ‘pen.

Of course the most notable example is John Smoltz, who pitched in relief for the better part of four seasons after missing the 2000 season due to Tommy John surgery, and he racked up 154 saves in the process. Curt Schilling spent some time in the bullpen in 2005 for Boston and picked up nine saves.

Dennis Eckersley famously switched to being a closer about halfway through his career, and Kerry Wood closed for a couple of seasons. This isn’t to say that Verlander would or should remain a closer for the rest of his career, but that it has been done by elite starting pitchers before, even in a temporary capacity.

The Need Is There

At this point, the Astros probably have a greater need for bullpen help than rotation help. Zack Greinke and Framber Valdez have been excellent, and rookies Cristian Javier and Brandon Bielak have been impressive. Lance McCullers Jr. has been up and down but will hopefully get better with time, and Jose Urquidy should be back later this season.

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The bullpen has been another story. Blake Taylor has been a revelation, Enoli Paredes has shown flashes of brilliance and Andre Scrubb has yet to allow a run. But pretty much everyone else has been shaky, including closer Ryan Pressly. We’ve not had an update lately on Roberto Osuna’s status, but for this exercise I’ll assume he won’t be able to return this year.

We don’t know what the team will get from the remaining veterans. Chris Devenski and Joe Biagini have struggled, while Brad Peacock and Austin Pruitt haven’t pitched this year. The fact that the team hasn’t called up Fernando Rodney makes one wonder how effective he is. There just are too many question marks right now.

Makes The Most Sense

If the Astros use Verlander in relief, it will take him less time to get ready, as he’ll likely need an additional few weeks to build his arm up to be a starter. Throwing fewer pitches would probably help him at this point, and the team can set rules about how often he’s used for the remainder of the year.

My suspicion at this point is that Verlander does indeed need Tommy John surgery but is attempting to pitch this year anyway. Whether he has the procedure now or at the end of the season won’t make much difference. He would still miss all of 2021 anyway. You may recall that McCullers did the same thing in 2018.

If that is the case, using him in relief is the way to go, and considering his elite pedigree and the struggles of most of the bullpen, making him the closer just makes the most sense. You want your best pitcher on the mound in those late-game situations, especially in the postseason. I can’t think of anyone better than Verlander.

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Then, if he does need surgery, he can have the procedure in October and spend 2021 rehabbing. His contract is up after next year, so pitching in relief now could also demonstrate his ability to effectively do so, which will only help him in contract talks. Hopefully the Astros will re-sign him, but that’s a discussion for another day. For now, we can ponder the possibility of what it will be like seeing a future Hall of Famer jog in from the bullpen in the ninth inning.

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