The world was Justin Verlander’s oyster this offseason. The active MLB win leader reportedly drew more than half of the league’s teams to his free agent showcase earlier this month, where he deftly displayed his entire arsenal of blistering pitches, including a straight that reached 97 mph, according to the newspaper. Joel Sherman of the New York Post, prompting eager speculation that its right arm cannon was refreshed and ready for action.
Rumor has it about Verlander’s next destination. Would he perform with the Yankees in New York, his wife’s favorite team? Would you join your former manager on his former team in Detroit? It turned out that he wanted to stay where he was all the time.
On Wednesday, Verlander reportedly agreed with the Astros to a one-year, $ 25 million deal with a player option for an identical salary in 2023, according to Jon Heyman of MLB Network. It equates to a $ 50 million guarantee for a two-year commitment, a slight downgrade from his previous two-year, $ 66 million deal with Houston that just expired.
Of course, Verlander ended up making just one appearance for the Astros over the course of that contract after undergoing Tommy John surgery last year. Against that backdrop, a $ 50 million guarantee for the 38-year-old Verlander is a huge hit, continuing what has been an unexpectedly active market for beginners earlier this offseason. It will also prove to be a bargain for Houston if Verlander resumes his pre-injury form.
After being acquired from Detroit in August 2017, Verlander won his first and only World Series with the Astros that year, finished second in the Cy Young Award voting in 2018, and then won his second Cy Young in 2019. Along with his partner Free agent Max Scherzer, is one of the few remaining of a species of endangered workhorses. Zach Wheeler, the 2021 MLB innings leader and National League Cy Young runner-up, pitched 213⅓ innings this season. Verlander has surpassed that number eight times, including during each of his two full seasons with the Astros.
With Corbin Burnes narrowly capturing the NL Cy Young this year, award voters showed a slight preference for dominance in short doses rather than above-average long-term effectiveness. In Verlander’s most recent full season, he showed the ability to combine the two in a way that even Scherzer couldn’t this year.
|Jug (year)||IP||WAS||ERA +||BB / 9||SO / 9||WHIP|
Justin Verlander (2019)
Corbin Burnes (2021)
Zack Wheeler (2021)
Max Scherzer (2021)
That potential explains why the Astros were willing to marry Verlander when he was 40, even as he is coming off two lost seasons. Similarly, it should come as no surprise that Verlander, who supposedly “felt loyalty” Towards the Astros and team owner Jim Crane, he preferred Houston as a form of stability in his life as he works to get back from Tommy John. After all, he will turn 39 in February and have a family with a home in Houston (plus residences reported in Los Angeles and South Florida, where the Astros hold spring training, but I digress.) After the birth of Verlander’s first daughter in April, undoubtedly changing her life in an indescribable way, she won’t have to change her work routine. However, it still feels like a mild surprise that this meeting has materialized.
Bob Nightengale from USA Today and John Granato of ESPN 97.5 Houston had reported that Astros players mocked Verlander by throwing a ceremonial first pitch during the playoffs after he was out of the team for the entire season. With Verlander heading to free agency, it was taken by many to mean that he and the Astros were heading for an ugly divorce. Clearly that was not the case. But if those reports were true, some fencing at the clubhouse may have to be fixed, even though Verlander’s absence was publicly defended by GM James Click as the ace simply adhering to COVID-19 protocols. Regardless, there obviously wasn’t enough animosity between Verlander and his teammates to prevent a meeting here and naturally him doing his part to help Houston to their sixth straight ALCS would be the best form of mediation.
In Houston’s World Series loss to Atlanta, both teams had to overcome the loss of their presumed Game 1 starters. Lance McCullers Jr. was left off Houston’s roster after suffering a forearm strain, while Charlie Morton came out of the first game with a fractured fibula after heroically gutting everything he could with a broken leg. How each team responded to adversity dictated the outcome of the series.
The Braves had a second ace to lean on from Max Fried, who led the MLB with a 1.74 ERA in the second half and pitched six scoreless innings in Atlanta’s victory in the sixth game. The two Astros who were called up to make two starts were Framber Valdez, who in each of his outings allowed five runs and couldn’t escape the third inning, and Luis Garcia, who suffered a pair of losses after allowing four runs (and five walks) in 6 innings combined. Relievers may reign in October in the modern age, but you still need a few starters who can absorb innings and keep the bullpen from overloading at the end of a long season.
After the fall of McCullers, Houston had no one to take on that role. Now, they have a future Hall of Famer who is the sure choice to lead any playoff rotation if he is healthy and fit. And his presence makes the whole rotation look better. McCullers, who finished seventh in the 2021 AL Cy Young voting, is perhaps the best No. 2 on the youth circuit. There aren’t many No. 3 pitchers who have thrown eight one-career innings in the American League Championship Series the way Valdez did. Garcia, Jose Urquidy or maybe even Cristian Javier or Jake Odorizzi have the potential to deftly maneuver through opposing lineups in the postseason a time or two, which is the maximum expected from back-end headlines in October these days.
It may be hard to believe, but Verlander has suffered defeat in his last three postseason starts with Houston. The two most recent outings were in a seven-game World Series loss to Washington in 2019. In both, Verlander allowed lead runs to score in his last inning of work.
In the seventh inning of Game 2, with the score tied at two, he hit a solo home run to Kurt Suzuki, the first of six runs to score in the deciding frame.
Then, in the fifth inning of Game 6, with Houston leading 2-1, he gave up a game-tying solo shot to Adam Eaton before giving Juan Soto the lead two batters later. The Astros did not score again that night, then lost Game 7 the following night to drown the championship at their home field.
The game has changed even in the short span of time since those losses. If they happened this year, Verlander may not have had a chance to face the green light streak in either case.
But then again… maybe they would have left it on the mound. We’re talking about Justin Verlander, the man who said he wants to pitch until he’s 45. That would make him the closest thing baseball has to Tom Brady. And you take out Tom Brady in the fourth quarter? If Houston lives up to his expectations and makes noise again in October, Dusty Baker will face that choice at some point. And if the old school manager decides to adhere to the new school way of thinking and takes off his old school pitcher with the game on the line, we will definitely know that it is the end of an era.
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Eddie is an Australian news reporter with over 9 years in the industry and has published on Forbes and tech crunch.