DOLLARS AND SENSE

Houston Astros even more prepared than we thought for Verlander's exit

The numbers are eye-opening. Composite image by Brandon Strange, Getty Images.

Pity the poor Houston Astros. Now that Cy Young Award winner Justin Verlander has left to sign with the New York Mets, the Astros starting pitching rotation must be in shambles.

Wait, you mean the Astros still have the best 5-man rotation in baseball? At less money all told than the Mets will pay one Justin Verlander?

This is like the time when Playboy magazine executives were in Houston to hype their special Girls of Enron pictorial. I asked one, “I’ve heard that the Internet has free porn sites. This must be absolutely killing Playboy.”

I know, it wasn’t exactly a question. The executive answered, “Yes, it’s had an effect on Playboy’s bottom line, but we like to put it this way, we’ve fallen all the way to Number One.”

Verlander, coming up on 40 years old, will make $43 million next season, tying him with Max Scherzer for the highest-paid player in baseball. Let’s crunch the numbers on the Astros projected rotation for 2023.

Lance McCullers is the only starter with a guaranteed salary set in stone for next season: $15.3 million.

Framber Valdez, Cristian Javier, and Jose Urquidy are eligible for arbitration. Spotrac, which covers team payrolls in pro sports, estimates their 2023 salaries at:

Framber Valdez - $8.8 million.

Jose Urquidy - $3.7 million.

Cristian Javier - $3.3 million.

Luis Garcia is not eligible for arbitration yet. He made $1.23 million last year. Let’s double his salary and put him down for $2.5 million. I’m very generous with Astros owner Jim Crane’s money.

Total salaries for the Astros 5-man starting rotation, considered the best in baseball: $33.6 million. That’s about the same amount the Dodgers paid David Price last season. Price won two games. Even game show host Drew Carey would admit the Price Was Not Right. Over! Over!

The other night, I was talking with a friend about Verlander leaving for the Mets. Friend said, “I wish we could have kept JV, but $43 million per year is just too much.”

My first thought was, “Why do you care how much Astros owner Jim Crane pays his players? It’s his money, not yours. Would you rather Crane turn the Astros into a skinflint team like the Pittsburgh Pirates or Oakland A’s and your team has no chance of winning the World Series?" The Yankees and Dodgers aren’t exactly tightening their purse strings for next year. It’s like the great philosopher Ric Flair says, “If you want to be the man, you gotta beat the man.”

The Astros clearly are “The Man.” While the Astros had the seventh-highest payroll in 2022 ($183 million), they got the most bang for their buck. You see all those World Series and American League pennant flags flying in Minute Maid Park? A dynasty doesn’t come cheap.

With Verlander coming off the books, the Astros are expected to have the ninth-highest payroll in 2023 (Spotrac estimates $141 million). Guess who’s the betting favorite to win the World Series next year? Even with a lower payroll, I wouldn’t hold your breath on lower ticket and beer prices.

I know some fans thought Verlander owed it to the Astros to stay in Houston for less money than the Mets or Yankees offered. The Astros paid Verlander $66 million for 2020 and 2021 when he pitched one whole game. And then paid him $25 million for 2022 coming off Tommy John surgery.

Instead Verlander took the Mets money and ran. I would have done the same thing. But I expected more of Verlander. You can’t blame Crane for singing “Money can’t buy me love.”

While Verlander struggled in the 2022 World Series, four other Astros pitchers combined to throw a no-hitter in Game 4. Let’s see how much that quartet made last season:

Cristian Javier - $3.3 million.

Bryan Abreu – $719,000.

Rafael Montero – $2.7 million.

Ryan Pressly – $10 million.

That’s World Series history for less than half of what Verlander will make next season.

Back in 2015, when the Astros started their rise to glory, the Astros met the Yankees in a one-game Wild Card showdown in New York. The Yankees started Masahiro Tanaka, who made $22 million that year … 42 times more than Astros hurler Dallas Keuchel’s $524,000 salary. Tanaka was out of the game after five innings and two runs. Keuchel went six scoreless, leading the Astros to a 3-0 shutout and into the American League Divisional Series.

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