I have been playing fantasy baseball in some capacity since 2005. I remember drafting a young, upstart Justin Verlander at the time and watching his instant success in his first season, in which he won AL Rookie of the year for the Detroit Tigers.
After drafting him every season since and watching inning after inning of Verlander’s games, he grew to be one of my favorite players of all-time. He is right up there with the likes of Craig Biggio, who, like many Houston Astros’ fans, I worshiped.
My excitement could not be contained after seeing the Tweets breaking the stories linking one of my all-time favorites to my favorite team. Once the trade was actually announced in 2017, I just knew this was a season of destiny for the Houston Astros
After joining the Astros via trade from the Tigers, Verlander won all five of his regular season starts in 2017 and finished with an ERA of 1.06. That postseason he continued that success en route to Houston’s first World Series title.
Verlander went 4-1 in that postseason pitch 36.2 innings with an ERA of 2.21. Beyond that, he spent the next two seasons like the ace the Astros needed to anchor their young core of players. There is no doubting the man’s contributions to the team through production on the field, leadership in the locker room and beyond had earned him the two-year $66 million contract extension he signed in Spring of 2019.
That was until Opening Day on July 24th 2020. The league had a late start due to the COVID-19 pandemic rearing its ugly head. Like an ace does, Verlander took the mound on Opening Day, pitched a quality start and got the win. Verlander hasn’t pitched for the Astros since.
Originally, it was reported that Verlander would be shut down with a forearm strain a few days after his start. Later in the season, Verlander confirmed via his Instagram account that he would undergo Tommy John surgery and would miss the remainder of the 2020 season plus all of the 2021 season as well.
As the starting in the spring and as the 2021 season chugged along, there was some mild speculation that we could see Verlander back in action in late September of this season. A mix of rumor and Verlander’s positive-vibe Twitter account were giving some Astros fans a lot of hope. The unfortunate news was shared yesterday revealed that all this was a little ambitious.
General manager James Click told SportsTalk 790 that Verlander will not return this season. Realists knew that it was certainly a long shot for the right-hander to join the Astros this season. Typical rehabilitation time for pitchers who undergo surgery on their UCL is 12 to 15 months. The earlier part of that time line would have been wildly aggressive for a 38-year-old future Hall of Famer, intent on playing well into his 40’s.
This season was the last of the aforementioned contract extension that he signed with the Astros in 2019. Verlander being sidelined with injury certainly looks like it will an unceremonious way to end his time with the team that brought each other their first World Series title.
But, have we seen the last of Justin Verlander in a Houston Astros uniform?
My personal fandom hopes there are more Verlander playing days in Houston ahead. Until the season fully wraps up, it will prove difficult in trying to gauge what the organization is going to be willing to do in terms of resigning impending free agents, or signing new free agents. In terms of finances, the club certainly will have some money to play with.
The arbitration raises to a handful of young players won’t be out of this world. The team only has two club options for Ryan Pressly and Yuli Gurriel (which they would surely pick up), but those are bargains. Zack Greinke’s large contract will be off the books. Finally, it appears that Carlos Correa likely won’t be returning to Houston on a landmark deal.
We really don’t know if Justin Verlander wants to come back to Houston either. Verlander has never been a part of the free agent market. In an interview given and posted by the Detroit Free Press, Verlander told Evan Petzold, “I’d be lying if I said I didn’t think about it [returning to the Detroit Tigers],” So, it seems he is expecting to entertain other offers.
He has spent his whole career playing through a series of contract extensions by the Tigers and the Astros. There is likely some allure to seeing what playing opportunities he could be offered out there.
Speaking to where the team stands today in terms of personnel, the Astros could certainly use Verlander. As mentioned, Greinke is set to become a free agent, and I would be rather surprised to see the Astros re-sign him. That means the Astros would carry Lance McCullers Jr., Jose Urquidy, Framber Valdez, Luis Garcia and Jake Odorizzi as the starters for next season.
While the emergence of Urquidy, Valdez and Garcia has been special, the team still lacks a reliable top of rotation innings eater. McCullers certainly has the skill and attitude of a staff ace. However, he has never pitched more than 128 innings in a season. In his last full season, Verlander pitched 223 innings with a 2.52 ERA ball, winning a AL Cy Young. Provided he can show Click that he’s still got those same skills in some capacity, the extension of a qualifying offer by the Astros makes sense.
Verlander is eligible to receive a one-year qualifying offer from the Astros after the season. Anthony Castrovince of MLB.com put together a long form explanation of qualifying offers a few years back. But, in short, it is generally worth the average of MLB’s 125 highest salaries. Qualifying offers during last free agent period were worth $18.9 million. So, I would imagine that number would naturally creep up a bit this offseason.
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Players actually accepting a qualifying offer are not very common. Colby Rasmus was the last Astro to accept a qualifying offer back in 2015. With Verlander coming off significant surgery, to him, it could be worth playing somewhere he and his family are comfortable, on and off the field, while he proves he still has the stuff. Teams have five days after the conclusion of the season to extend a qualifying offer, and players then have 10 days after that to accept. So, we should know pretty quick should the Houston Astros choose to go this route.
If this is the end for the Houston Astros and Justin Verlander, fans will always remember him as the one of the greatest to play ball in Houston. Regardless of how the Astros or Verlander handle this, the right-hander’s mark was certainly made in Houston. In his four regular seasons with the Astros, Verlander went 43-15 with a 2.45 ERA and 640 of his 3013 career strikeouts.
In three post-seasons, he pitched 89.1 innings with a 3.43 ERA through 15 games. He made two All-Star appearances. He also bagged his second Cy Young award. It was pure joy watching one of my favorite baseball players ever to play for the team that I grew up loving so much. If this is the end for the Houston Astros and Justin Verlander, fans will always remember him as the one of the greatest to play ball in Houston.