Here's what the future could look like for Justin Verlander and the Astros
Justin Verlander announced last week that he would undergo Tommy John Surgery, ending his season, and possibly ending his career in an Astros uniform. However, is his career in Houston really done? Many people have effectively crossed him off the Astros roster for 2021, but is that really the case? Verlander will likely undergo surgery this week or next, and Tommy John is an 11-13 month recovery process depending on how the player responds. 11 months slates Verlander as a late August return, even giving him the opportunity to get a few rehab outings under his belt in the twilight of a minor league season (assuming there will be a minor league season). 12 months allows him to come back at this time next year, which means he'd build up his pitch count in simulated games before returning to game action in an Astro uniform. 13 months means...well...the Astros better be in the World Series if he is going to pitch on his current contract again.
Yes, the timeline is dicey. If he does return next season, he's returning at the most high leverage portion of the season, diving immediately into the deep end of high stress innings. However, if you're Justin Verlander, why wouldn't you do that?
Verlander is not a typical Tommy John recipient. He will be the second oldest pitcher to ever undergo Tommy John surgery and attempt to return. Jamie Moyer got Tommy John in the offseason following 2010 as a 47 year old, missed the entirety of 2011, and returned to pitch one last season in 2012. Moyer, while 10 years older than Verlander will be when he gets his surgery, was a very different pitcher. He pitched at the bottom of rotations, his fastball couldn't break a pane of glass, and he wasn't a workhorse. Verlander is a defending Cy Young Award winner who throws in the high 90s and is used to being the workhorse. Does Verlander really want to take all of 2021 off so he can get an invite to spring training somewhere and scrap for a roster spot, or does Verlander want to come back and pitch next year, prove his worth, and sign a multi-million dollar deal with a guaranteed roster spot? The answer is obviously the latter.
It doesn't take a long time to re-establish value. Rewind to July of 2017. Verlander had ugly and injury riddled seasons in 2014 and 2015 before finishing 2nd in AL Cy Young voting in 2016. It initially looked as if he had returned to his '14 and '15 form in 2017, as he carried an ERA in the low-to-mid 4.00s the entire first half of the season. His final start in the month of July was actually a win against the Astros on the 22nd, where he pitched six innings of scoreless baseball to drop his ERA from 4.50 to 4.29. The Astros famously didn't make any deals at the deadline, and Dallas Keuchel voiced his frustrations that the front office didn't make a move.
Other contenders got arms that Astros fans clamored for. The Dodgers got Yu Darvish from Texas. The Yankees got Sonny Gray from Oakland and Jaime Garcia from Minnesota. The Cubs got Jose Quintana from the White Sox earlier in the month. All of those pitchers, aside from Garcia, were more coveted arms than Verlander at the time. With the exception of one bad start against Texas, Verlander had a fantastic month of August, good enough that the Astros felt comfortable parting with two of their top 10 prospects for him at the waiver trade deadline on the last day of August. Verlander went on to pitch the best he ever has in his career, lead the Astros to a title, finish 2nd in AL Cy Young voting in 2018, win the Cy Young in 2019, and sign a two-year, $66M extension.
Two months worth of pitching changed the trajectory of Verlander's career. With his work ethic and drive, he'll push to come back as early as possible, and some magical performances in September and October would be more than enough time to change the narrative of his career again. Verlander wants to pitch into his mid-40s like Nolan Ryan did (or the aforementioned Moyer). Some might think Verlander's days on a Minute Maid mound are over, but in his mind, he'll be back next year, ready to begin the next phase of his Astros career.