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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The Texans host the Steelers at NRG this Sunday. Composite Getty Image.

What: Texans vs. Steelers

When: 10/1 12pm CST kickoff

Where: Houston, TX NRG Stadium

TV/Radio: KHOU-TV, KILT-Radio

Betting Lines: Steelers -2.5 (-120), O/U 42 (-110) *As of this writing

The Watt Brother Bowl takes place on Sunday. I'm calling it that because the Texans are honoring their all-time great J.J. while they're playing his younger brother and current hell raising edge rusher for the Steelers T.J. The Steelers have won four of the last five matchups vs. the Texans by an average score of 28-17. The biggest difference is that the Steelers have a second year starter at quarterback in Kenny Pickett, and the Texans have a rookie in C.J. Stroud. When you look at the two quarterbacks, both organizations have full faith in each guy. Both teams have tried to build a defense to help their young signal callers. Both are still trying to surround their franchise guys with weapons.

When the Steelers have the ball: Here's a game where Will Anderson Jr can make headway as a proven EDGE. Stacking consistent performances together and helping your team win games by making winning plays. It helps that Pickett has tiny hands. This was a knock on him during draft season last year. Hand size for a quarterback impacts grip. That can not only impact accuracy, but it could make it easier to strip the ball from him.

While he doesn't have the weapons to torch this defense, Pickett does hand the ball off to Najee Harris who's more than capable. Averaging only 67 yards rushing as a team can't be taken lightly. Denzel Perryman is expected to miss the game Sunday, so hopefully that won't help jumpstart the Steelers' run game. The Texans defense will have to key in on the run, given that they average giving up 117 a game on the ground. Those aforementioned weapons may not be scary, but the injuries to the defensive backs has hurt. Tavierre Thomas is expected to miss the game recovering from hand surgery. Jimmie Ward coming back last week showed what happens when they have a top safety back there, especially when the pass rush is turning up. Hopefully, the Texans can capitalize again this week, with safety Jalen Pitre expected to return to action.

When the Texans have the ball: Good luck stopping Tank Dell and Stroud! These guys have already established themselves as a formidable duo three games into their careers. A great way to get that connection going is to pound the rock. The Steelers are giving up over 150 yards on the ground per game so far this season. That's also a good way to keep T.J. at bay while J.J. watches. With Laremy Tunsil and Josh Jones both expected to miss the game, here are the offensive line starters: Austin Deculus, Kendrick Green, Jarrett Patterson, Shaq Mason, and George Fant.

Making the younger Watt brother slow down a bit instead of going balls to the wall after Stroud because a run could be coming will help the pass game tremendously. Stroud will have to continue to make quick decisions, but even quicker this game. I wouldn't be surprised to see his first pick of his career here, given the pressure he's most likely to be under. Especially when your offensive line starters were mostly all backups to begin this season.

Outcome: I failed to place a money line bet on the Texans last week because the game started and the live bet wasn't as profitable. I wanted to take a chance on them given their recent record against the Jags. Looking at their last five vs. the Steelers, one would say why make that bet this week? It's because I believe in Stroud more than I believe in Pickett. While T.J. Watt is a different kind of monster, Will Anderson Jr is on his way to becoming something special. Texans win/cover, and hit the over, but barely: Texans 24, Steelers 20.

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