How Justin Verlander's return to Minute Maid raises these important Astros questions

How Justin Verlander's return to Minute Maid raises these important Astros questions
How will Houston fans react to Justin Verlander? Composite Getty Image.

Astros fans: when Justin Verlander takes the mound tonight against your Houston Astros at Minute Maid Park, will you cheer or boo him?

There’s a pretty compelling argument for both sides.

Cheer him: Although he was a fleeting comet across the Houston sky, only 5-plus years here, including two seasons on the injured list, Verlander is, prorated, the greatest pitcher in Astros history. He rode into town like a knight in shining armor in 2017, going 5-0 down the stretch and helping the Astros win their first World Series. He followed that going 16-9 in 2018, then a Cy Young Award in 2019. Then another Cy Young in 2022, the lowest earned run average of his career (1.75) and another World Series title for the Astros.

Along the way, he married Kate Upton, they had a daughter, and together they became the most celebrated couple, a beloved icon, in Houston. The only thing missing from Verlander’s career in Houston was an H-E-B commercial. He was too busy pushing Ford trucks.

So go ahead, give Verlander an ovation for what he did when he was here. He was spectacular. He brought glory to Houston. He literally loved Jose Altuve and the rest of the team.

And then, at the end of the 2022, he became a free agent …

Boo him: First and most important, he is pitching for the other team. The Astros desperately need a win to stop their 5-game losing streak and get back into the playoff picture.

The bigger question, how do you like him now?

After the 2022 triumphant season, Verlander sought greener pastures, like $86.666 million worth of green from the New York Mets over two years. And possibly $35 million more for a third season if he gets there.

That’s how Verlander paid the Astros back for paying him $147 million for the five full seasons he was here, two of which he barely pitched at all, only six innings in 2020 and none in 2021. That’s more money than many Astros fans will make in 75 lifetimes.

At 39 years old, coming off two missing seasons because of Tommy John surgery, the Astros still risked $25 million on Verlander for 2022.

The Astros certainly were loyal to Verlander. Him, not so much. The Astros would have loved to keep Verlander for 2023 and beyond, but as soon as he had the chance, Verlander stuck it to the Astros where the sun don’t shine – under the roof at Minute Maid Park. Where tonight he’ll face the Astros’ heir to the ace throne, Framber Valdez. It’ll be a packed house, the game of the year so far.

Of course, nobody should begrudge anybody for leaving a job for more money. But how much is enough? By the end of 2022, Verlander had made $299 million over his certain Hall of Fame career. If he completes his three years in New York, he will be the highest-paid player in baseball history at $420 million. The current leaders in the clubhouse are Miguel Cabrera at $400 million, followed by Alex Rodriguez ($399 million), Albert Pujols ($346 million) and Zack Greinke ($338 million).

Those numbers could be blown to smithereens in a few months when Shohei Ohtani becomes a free agent at age 29. Team owners, start your bidding at $500 million, with the Los Angeles Dodgers expected to offer whatever it takes.

Back to Verlander. By leaving the Astros, Verlander became a cold-blooded hired gun. Sure, we’d all love to be given that opportunity. But as Howie Mandel used to ask on Deal or No Deal … did the Mets make a good deal signing Verlander? He is 40 years old and his roots are showing. Even last year, he limped home at the end of the season, with the Astros hoping to squeeze five innings out him during the playoffs. Verlander started this season on the injured list and with June rolling to a close, he’s 2-3 with an ERA of 4.40.

Giving Verlander, or any 40-year-old baseball player, a huge long-term deal is like buying bread from the day-old rack at the supermarket. Occasionally you’ll get a fresh slice from the middle, but it’s not like yesterday. Verlander isn’t the Verlander of old. He’s just old Verlander.

So go ahead and cheer him, but let’s holler for the Astros more. The Astros can’t afford another loss, but Verlander sure can.

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Astros on the hunt. Composite Getty Image.

With the Astros' surge from 10 games out of first place to within two games of Seattle, catching and going past the Mariners has naturally become the top objective. It's no given to happen but it's right there. In the final series ahead of the All-Star break, while the Mariners are in the midst of four games with the lowly Angels, the last two World Series champions renew (un)pleasantries at Minute Maid Park.

The Astros enter the weekend five games ahead of the Rangers. They lead the season series with the reigning champs four wins to three. While the Astros can't quite finish off the Arlingtonians by sweeping them in this three game set, shoving them eight games back (even further back of Seattle and the current Wild Card teams) and clinching the tiebreaker would seem close to a death blow. Taking two out of three would be fine for the Astros. If the Rangers win the series, they are clearly still in the American League West and Wild Card races coming out of the All-Star break.

Last year the Rangers had the best offense in the AL. So far in 2024 they rank a mediocre eighth in runs per game. Nathaniel Lowe is the lone Ranger (get it?!?) regular playing as well as he did last season. Corey Seager has been fine but not at the MVP runner-up level of last year. Marcus Semien is notably down, as is 2023 ALCS Astros-obliterater Adolis Garcia. Stud 2023 rookie Josh Jung has been out with a broken wrist since ex-Astro Phil Maton hit him with a pitch in the fourth game of this season, though fill-in third baseman Josh Smith has been the Rangers' best player. 21-year-old late season phenom Evan Carter largely stunk the first two months this season and has been out since late May with a back injury. Repeating is hard, never harder than it is now. Hence no Major League Baseball has done it since the Yankees won three straight World Series 1998-2000.

Chasing down the Division at a crazy clip

From the abyss of their 7-19 start, the Astros sweep over the Marlins clinched a winning record at the break with them at 49-44. Heading into the Texas matchup the Astros have won at a .627 clip since they were 7-19. A full season of .627 ball wins 101 games. If the Astros win at a .627 rate the rest of the way they'll finish with 92 wins, almost certainly enough to secure a postseason slot and likely enough to win the West. Expecting .627 the rest of the way is ambitious.

With it fairly clear that Lance McCullers is highly unlikely to contribute anything after his latest recovery setback, and Luis Garcia a major question mark, what Justin Verlander has left in 2024 grows more important. With the way the Astros often dissemble or poorly forecast when discussing injuries, for all we know Verlander could be cooked. Inside three weeks to the trade deadline, General Manager Dana Brown can't be thinking a back end of the rotation comprised of Spencer Arrighetti and Jake Bloss should be good enough. The Astros have 66 games to play after the All-Star break, including separate stretches with games on 18 and 16 consecutive days.

All-Star MIAs

Viewership for Tuesday's All-Star game at Globe Life Field in Arlington will be pretty, pretty, pretty low in Houston. One, All-Star Game ratings are pitiful every year compared to where they used to be. Two, the Astros could be down to zero representatives at Tuesday's showcase. Kyle Tucker was rightfully named a reserve but had no shot at playing as he continues the loooong recovery from a bone bruise (or worse) suffered June 3. Being named an All-Star for a ninth time was enough for Jose Altuve. He opts out of spending unnecessary time in Texas Rangers territory citing a sore wrist. This despite Altuve playing four games in a row since sitting out the day after he was plunked and highly likely to play in all three games versus the Rangers this weekend. Yordan Alvarez exiting Wednesday's rout of the Marlins with hip discomfort and then missing Thursday's game seem clear reasons for him to skip, though he has indicated thus far he intends to take part. Yordan is the most essential lineup component to the Astros' hopes of making an eighth straight playoff appearance.

Ronel Blanco should have made the American League squad on performance, but pretty obviously his 10 game illegal substance use suspension was held against him. As it works out, Blanco will pitch Sunday in the last game before the break which would render him unavailable for the All-Star Game anyway. Blanco is eligible to pitch, but given the career high-shattering innings workload Blanco is headed for, no way the Astros want him on the mound Tuesday. Just last year the Astros kept Framber Valdez from pitching in the game.

While waiting, and waiting, and waiting on Tucker's return, the Astros have also been waiting on Chas McCormick to get back to something even faintly resembling the hitter he was last year. McCormick routinely looks lost at the plate. He has four hits (all singles) in his last 32 at bats with his season OPS pitiful at .572. During the break the Astros should seriously weigh sending McCormick to AAA Sugar Land and giving Pedro Leon a try in a job share with Joey Loperfido.

*Catch our weekly Stone Cold ‘Stros podcast. Brandon Strange, Josh Jordan, and I discuss varied Astros topics. The first post for the week generally goes up Monday afternoon (second part released Tuesday) via The SportsMap HOU YouTube channel or listen to episodes in their entirety at Apple, Spotify or wherever you get your podcasts.

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