ASTROS HOT STOVE

Examining the ripple effect of an Astros-Verlander divorce

Examining the ripple effect of an Astros-Verlander divorce
Justin Verlander is about to get paid! Composite image by Brandon Strange.

Justin Verlander had the best possible bounce back year both he and the Houston Astros could have asked for in 2022.

He not only won the American League’s Comeback Player of the Year, he was also the unanimous AL Cy Young Award winner and helped Houston win its second Commissioner’s Trophy in franchise history.

Under any other circumstances, it should be a no-brainer for the Astros to do everything possible to make sure that Verlander is donning the star with the H on his head in 2023, but for Houston and Verlander, now might be the perfect time for both sides to move on.

The 39-year-old ace, who will be 40 by the time Houston’s 2023 season gets under way, is a free agent and according to reports, he is seeking a “Max Scherzer” type of deal, which is around the ballpark of $40 million per year. Verlander played for the Astros on a $25 million deal in 2022.

For the Astros, like any other team, they have areas of weakness that could use a boost and allocating that amount of funding for Verlander is not the wisest long-term decision.

Houston still has Framber Valdez, Cristian Javier, Jose Urquidy, Luis Garcia and Hunter Brown on the roster as starting-caliber pitchers, but all are in or nearing arbitration, which means they are all going to need their slice of long-term funding pie sooner or later. Of course, Houston also has Lance McCullers Jr., whose long-term deal has already been secured.

Valdez specifically has shown that he has what it takes to be the long-term ace of the Astros, bouncing back from an inconsistent 2021 postseason run with a sensational 2022 run. Valdez was the winning pitcher in Houston’s World Series clinching Game Six. He has shown that a long-term investment could be wiser, and cheaper, to do now rather than a year or two down the road.

Despite Yuli Gurriel’s stellar run in the 2022 postseason, the first baseman struggled offensively for much of the regular season. It was rumored that Houston was heavily interested in Yankees first baseman Anthony Rizzo, who opted to stay in New York.

According to a new report from Ken Rosenthal of The Athletic, the Astros are still eyeing an upgrade at first base, and have shown interest in the former White Sox slugger Jose Abreu. He posted a slashline of .304/.378/.446 in the 2022 season. In comparison, Gurriel posted .242/.288/.360 in 2022. Abreu had a base salary of $18 million in 2022.

One of the glaring weaknesses Houston was able to overcome during its World Series run came at another position, designated hitter.

In a perfect world, Yordan Alvarez would have been Houston’s DH most often than not, but when Michael Brantley went down with an injury, Alvarez was moved to left field, especially in the playoffs.

In the postseason, Houston struggled tremendously to get production from the DH position. Houston could bring back Brantley to address left field, and move Alvarez to DH, but the 35-year-old is coming off arthroscopic labral repair on his right shoulder.

One of the other positions the Astros could focus on is catcher. Defensively, Houston has had the position locked down with Martin Maldonaldo, who is on the books for 2023. However, offensive production at that position has always been a weak spot.

The Astros went out and acquired Christian Vázquez during the season. While he played in spots throughout Houston’s run, he is not on the roster for 2023 as he is an unrestricted free agent.

Willson Contreras, who posted .243/.349/.466 in 2022, is a name the Astros should consider strongly. He has played both left field and catcher, which is just what Houston needs. He had a base salary of $9.63 million for the Chicago Cubs in 2022.

Free agency is always a crazy time. For fans, it will be difficult to see Verlander go. He has been a key figure since 2017 when Houston won its first championship.

He has helped lead Houston to the mountain top, but if Verlander is aiming to get a big payday, which he absolutely has earned, it is in the best interest for the Astros to let him find greener pastures as Houston addresses more glaring needs that can help keep them atop Major League Baseball for 2023 and the years to follow.

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Welcome back, Justin! Photo by Al Bello/Getty Images.

Houston Astros ace Justin Verlander will make his season debut Friday night at the Washington Nationals.

Houston manager Joe Espada made the announcement Wednesday.

“Getting him back is huge because it brings a level of confidence to our team, a boost of confidence that we’re going to get someone who’s been an MVP, a Cy Young (winner) on the mound,” Espada said. “It's (good) for the morale and to get stuff started and moving in the right direction.”

The three-time Cy Young Award winner opened the season on the injured list with inflammation in his right shoulder. He made two rehabilitation starts, the first for Triple-A Sugar Land on April 7 before Saturday’s start for Double-A Corpus Christi.

Espada wouldn't say how many pitches the 41-year-old would be limited to but said they'll keep an eye on his workload.

“We've got to be careful how hard we push him early,” Espada said. “I know he’s going to want to go and stay out there and give us an opportunity to win, but we've got to be cautious of how hard we push him early in the season.”

Verlander wasn’t thrilled with the results in his rehabilitation starts, but he said Monday that those games were valuable in getting him prepared to come off the IL.

He allowed seven hits and six runs — five earned — in four innings against Frisco on Saturday. He struck out three, walked one and threw 51 of 77 pitches for strikes.

Verlander allowed six earned runs and struck out six while pitching into the fourth inning for Sugar Land on April 7.

The Astros have gotten off to a tough start with Verlander and fellow starters Framber Valdez and José Urquidy on the injured list. They enter Wednesday's games last in the AL West with a 6-13 record.

Espada hopes Verlander can be the boost the team needs to get on track.

“It’s good to get him back in the rotation,” Espada said. “With what he means to this club just to get him back on track, getting some innings from him (to) build our rotation with the pieces that we need to move forward is exciting.”

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