THE PALLILOG

Everything you thought you knew about the Astros just got turned upside down

Everything you thought you knew about the Astros just got turned upside down
Justin Verlander is expected to start this weekend at Yankee Stadium. Photo by Getty Images.

An Astros-Rangers American League West race that goes down to the wire would be a wonderfully compelling experience for fans of both teams, in the end of course much more so for the winner. The stage sure is set for the possibility. One team could close like Secretariat and run away with it and/or the other could fade, but those outcomes don't seem likely.

It's not as if the Astros were in anything approaching dire straits before acquiring Justin Verlander ahead of the trade deadline for a second time, but they were not the favorite to again win the American League West. Not after the Rangers' flurry of acquisitions. Well, the Astros sure flipped that script. They are not remotely a sure thing now, but Verlander The Sequel is a thunderbolt strike. Combined with Framber Valdez spinning a no-hitter Monday night, eight or so of the most exciting non-postseason hours in franchise (Framchise?) history were complete.

Since hitting his stride after a lousy beginning with the Mets following a late in spring training shoulder injury, Verlander has been his three-time Cy Young Award-winning magnificent self. Not starting his regular season until May 4, over his first seven starts Verlander posted an ugly 4.85 earned run average. Over his last seven starts Verlander's earned run average is 1.49. It’s 1.95 over his last nine. A tinge of wariness may be warranted given that even during his resurgence Verlander's strikeout numbers are down and his walk numbers are up from what he was an Astro the first time around.

However, the essence of the job is run prevention, not to strike out as many as you can. Verlander has been spectacular at run prevention during his surge. Earned runs allowed over his last seven starts: zero, zero, two, three, one, zero, one. OPS against him during those seven starts: .499. Last season in putting up an amazing 1.75 ERA Verlander yielded an OPS of .497. In his 2019 Cy season the OPS against him was .579 (2019 was a year of juiced baseballs).

As for the acquisition cost, with Mets’ kajillionaire owner Steve Cohen paying 35 million dollars of the approximately 58 million Verlander is owed through next season, the Astros get a financial steal. If Verlander pitches 140 or more innings next year to vest his 2025 option of 35 million, Cohen will pay half of that. So the Astros are getting Verlander at a rate of roughly 17 million dollars per season. That is fabulous value, albeit not risk-free at Verlander's age. Re: the talent given up…

Drew Gilbert is a fine prospect regarded as the best the Astros had, but to those thinking he should have been an untouchable and/or was an overpay for a 40-year-old pitcher…stop! That Gilbert was the top-rated prospect in the Astros' organization speaks to the paucity of talent down on their farm these days.

Gilbert is at best a borderline top-100 prospect in the minor leagues. He would not be the number one prospect in any other organization. He would not rate as even a top five prospect in the Rangers', Orioles' or Dodgers' organizations. This is not giving up a potential Mike Trout. Gilbert turns 23 next month, not old by many means but older than when a very high percentage of future stars have pounded the door and gotten to the big leagues. Gilbert is older than both of last year's Rookie of the Year winners, Julio Rodriguez and Michael Harris.

20-year-old Ryan Clifford may have been the Astros' second-best prospect. He is having an impressive season in single-A. One definition of potential is everything as yet unaccomplished. In the extremely unlikely development that Ryan Clifford turns out to be a Yordan Alvarez-esque masher, that would smart down the road, but so be it. Justin Verlander is not Josh Fields.

Yordan is signed through 2028. Kyle Tucker is under Astro control for two more years (How about seven years 175 mil for a Tuck extension and call it a day.). Chas McCormick is under team control for three more years. The Astros can come up with another outfielder as necessary over the next couple of seasons by a number of means.

It is amusingly fantastic that Verlander makes his second Astros “debut” this weekend at Yankee Stadium. Amusingly fantastic for Astros fans of course. Yankees fans are probably not so amused as their season is making the "glug, glug, glug" drain-circling sound. The Yankees start this series after dropping back-to-back series to the Orioles and Rays, rendering them dead in the water in the AL East race. They sit tied for fifth place in the Wild Card race, but are within three games of the Blue Jays for the third and final spot.

The Yankees' only good starting pitcher these days is Gerrit Cole, who at this point would be the AL Cy Young winner. Cole will not pitch in this series. The Yanks' last losing season was 1992. 1992! Love them or hate them, that is absurd. As the Astros hit town for four games, the Yankees are 56-52.

Also on the subject of New York fan misery, what a thrill for Mets fans it would be to watch Justin Verlander and Max Scherzer matchup in, say, game seven of the American League Championship Series!

Provided the Astros have the luxury of setting up their playoff pitching rotation ahead of time, who starts game one? Bigger question: Should the Astros have a decisive game three in the Wild Card round with Valdez/Verlander having gone in games one and two, who starts?

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With both Luis Garcia and Lance McCullers making their way back from surgeries that sideline that Astros pitchers last season, and given the team's thin depth in their starting rotation, Houston fans and media have waited on bated breath for scraps of information to leak out of the notoriously secretive organization regarding their progress.

In a week full of mostly Hurricane Beryl-related bad news, the Astros organization had some discouraging news of their own when manager Joe Espada told the media that Lance McCullers has been shut down from pitching after his arm did not respond well to his latest bullpen session. The team says they are "formulating a plan for what's next."

Another Astros starter making his way back from injury is HOF-bound Justin Verlander. Verlander has been on the IL since June 16th with neck discomfort and, while there was initial hope that JV would only miss a start, his status has become increasingly murky as he is still apparently not close to returning.

Shifting from the health questions of the starters to the performance questions of the bullpen, some Houston fans have voiced concern via social media that Astros big-ticket 9th inning pitcher Josh Hader is not looking like a "shut-down" closer. Hader gave up more home runs in the first week of July (3) as he did the entire month of June (2).

In this week's episode of Stone Cold Stros, Charlie Pallilo and Brandon Strange discuss how the fluid dynamics of Astros pitching is impacting the competitive landscape of the division race. To watch the conversation, just click the video YouTube embedded in this article. To listen to the entire episode on podcast, search "Stone Cold Stros" in your favorite podcast app or click one of the following links.

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