A Mutual Parting of Ways Would be Best for Both Sides
It was recently reported that the Houston Astros and Justin Verlander have not come close to reaching a contract agreement with MLB's free agency period now well underway. There have been few cases, if any, in baseball history where the reigning Cy Young award winner has departed in free agency and his former team was better off for it. However, that appears to be the way this is going.
Jon Heyman's initial report suggests that Verlander wants north of $40M per year for 3 seasons, and there's no sugar-coating it: not only is that probably not worth the investment for the kind of pitcher Verlander is going to be next year and beyond, but it's a very uncharacteristic contract for Houston to hand out. As per Spotrac, the biggest contract an Astro has ever signed was Jose Altuve back in 2018, and the average annual value on that deal is under $25M.
For the 2023 season, the Astros have two legitimate aces that will likely contend for the next Cy Young award in Framber Valdez and Cristian Javier. Beyond that, they should have Lance McCullers Jr. for a full season, and top prospect Hunter Brown projects as a starter in the long-term - he put up a dazzling 0.89 ERA in 20.1 innings in his first taste of the big leagues this past year.
The Astros could lose the man who just put up one of the greatest pitching performances in recent history and still have arguably the best top-4 starters in baseball. That's also without mentioning Jose Urquidy or Luis Garcia, who would probably both be the best 5th starters in the game no matter how the Astros configure the rest of their rotation next year.
As for Verlander himself, Fangraphs projects that his ERA will balloon by almost 2 full runs. BaseballReference's model has the increase at a more modest 0.8 runs. Either way, a repeat of last year is virtually impossible. From the Astros' perspective, there isn't much logic to allocating more than $100M to an area of unprecedented surplus. They should not let sentimentalism get in their way, but it's not as though that should be a problem.
Fans in Houston have seen this movie before. They lost Gerrit Cole after 2019's devastating loss in the World Series, and their worst season since then resulted in a game-7 ALCS exit. They lost their franchise outfielder in George Springer after the shortened 2020 season and have been AL champs twice in 2 seasons since then. They lost their cornerstone shortstop, Carlos Correa, 9 months ago, and responded by winning 106 games and the World Series. The guy who replaced him would go on to become the MVP of the Fall Classic.
To be clear, none of this is an indictment on the season Verlander just had. It was historic. It may not be seen again for a long time by any starter, let alone one of his age. If he leaves, it will be completely mutual. Since he was traded to Houston, he has thrown a no-hitter, won two Cy Youngs, and multiple World Series. He has nothing left to prove to anyone and he's an Astros legend. He could retire today and wind up in the Hall of Fame, but the season he just had warrants an enormous payday, and he deserves that. Considering the context for both sides, though, that payday shouldn't come in Houston - and it probably won't.
CTH's own Alec Brown did a great job outlining the possible implications of Verlander's departure, which seemed likely after Heyman's article late last week. If the two parties aren't close now, it's in the team's best interest to let this ship sail. Verlander can get the money and the luxury of choosing where he plays, as he has rightfully earned, and the Astros can continue to operate in free agency and let their elite rotation flourish even further next year. There is no shame whatsoever in Verlander departing on a high note after doing everything he was asked to do, and more, in an Astros uniform.