I'll admit, I'm trying really hard not to get irrationally angry at anything that has happened with our sports teams in Houston this year, considering we were teetering on the brink of having no sports at all, thanks to the coronavirus pandemic. The sports gods are not making this easy on me, though. The Rockets exited the payoffs with barely a whimper, the Texans are what they are, and now the Astros have essentially had both their 2020 and 2021 seasons torpedoed with this news from Justin Verlander over the weekend:
This is absolutely terrible news. I feel personally awful for Justin Verlander, who has embraced Houston even more than we ever thought he would when he was traded here in 2017, and I feel terrible for the Astros, who were hoping to get their ace back to try and put together a playoff run. Perhaps they still can, if Zack Greinke begins pitching like an ace again, and Lance McCullers can fulfill his promise as a viable number two starter. Oh, and if the bats come around.
For now, let's process this Verlander news, and what it all means. Here we go:
Chandler Rome is vindicated!
Rome, the Astros beat writer for the Houston Chronicle, was the first to report Verlander's injury after the season opener against the Mariners:
This report was immediately disputed by both Dusty Baker and Verlander himself, with both saying that the Astros' ace starter was going to work to get back on the field. Rome actually doubled down on his "out for the season" report after Baker's and Verlander's statements. Kind of admirable and ballsy! Verlander did work tirelessly to try to get all the way back, but in the end, Rome's report wound up being correct, although the Astros claim that the injury Verlander suffered over the last few days is a separate one from the initial forearm strain. Regardless, I wonder if Rome was prepared for Twitter's wrath had Verlander returned.
This is basically the death blow for 2020 (and possibly 2021, too)
I'll repeat what I said above — this news torpedoes any chance the Astros had in making a playoff run this season, but it's particularly crippling for 2021, a season in which the team was likely going to rely more heavily on its starting pitching, what with George Springer, Michael Brantley, and Yuli Gurriel all hitting free agency after the 2020 season. Now, the rotation in 2021, barring a major acquisition in free agency or via trade, will be Greinke in a contract year, McCullers in a contract year, and some mish mosh of young arms on the roster and in the minor leagues right now. There's an absolute possibility the Astros are on the cusp of another tear down and rebuild here in less than two years.
Man, how do we process the two-year, $66 million extensions Verlander received for 2020 and 2021?
Well, just to be fully accurate on the dollar figured, because this season was prorated for just 60 games, the deal will wind up costing the Astros about $45 million in actual dollars. Still, for just 73 pitches, um, not great value, unless you just rationalize it as a gigantic bonus for being the crucial final piece to a World Series title (albeit, one now tainted by sign stealing) in 2017. As for the actual dollars themselves, these contracts often are insured for major injuries like this, however, it doesn't take Verlander's 2021 salary off the books for luxury tax purposes, and thus, it will remain a likely obstacle for Jim Crane maxing out the dollars he is willing to spend on the roster. This offseason will be a different type of test for Crane, who will now have to try to retain George Springer (and perhaps eventually sign Carlos Correa before he hits free agency after 2021), all while carrying Verlander's $33 million salary and getting no actual labor in exchange next season.
So where does Verlander's three-year run from 2017 through 2019 stack up in Astro history?
OK, the last couple paragraphs were kind of depressing, so let's go back to our happy place — Justin Verlander's brief, but spectacular Astros career! So where does Verlander's run from September 2017 through the end of the postseason in 2019 stack up compared to other three-year runs from starting pitchers in team history. I believe the short list of competitors looks like this:
* J.R. Richard, 1978-1980
This one kind of bums me out to go back and examine. J.R. Richard was an absolute beast, who finished fourth in the Cy Young balloting in 1978, third in 1979, and started the All Star Game in 1980, before suffering a stroke that ended his career. It's one of the biggest "what ifs" in Houston sports history — what would J.R. Richard have become had he stayed healthy, and would the Astros have won a World Series in 1980 with J.R. Richard at the top of the rotation?
* Mike Scott, take your pick of any three consecutive seasons from 1985-1989
Mike Scott had a fascinating career arc, because in his 11 seasons in the big leagues, he was arguably the best pitcher in baseball for those five seasons, and was completely pedestrian and injury-riddled before and after. The single biggest highlight, of course, is the no hitter to clinch the division in 1986, a year in which he won the Cy Young Award. He also finished second for the Cy Young three seasons later in 1989, his only 20-win season.
* Roy Oswalt, take your pick of any three consecutive seasons from 2001-2006
Oswalt was a stud from the day he set foot in the big leagues, beginning with a 14-3 season in 2001, and a fifth place finish in the NL Cy Young race, the first of five top five Cy Young finishes between 2001 and 2006. On a staff with Andy Petite and Roger Clemens, Oswalt was the horse who went out and won 20 games in each of the seasons where the Astros made deep playoff runs, in 2004 and 2005.
* Roger Clemens, 2004-2006
Speaking of Clemens, he didn't win nearly as many games as Oswalt in the three seasons he was with the Astros, but he did take home the 2004 NL Cy Young Award, going 18-4 with a 2.98 ERA. He followed that up with a 1.87 ERA in 2005. Clemens and Oswalt both were crucial pieces to the Astros making what, at the time, were unprecedented playoff runs for the franchise in 2004 and 2005.
That brings us to Verlander, to whom I give the nod for the greatest three-year run by a starting pitcher in franchise history. He arrived in early September 2017, went 5-0 down the stretch, won the ALCS MVP, and then followed that up with a Cy Young runner-up in 2018, and a Cy Young Award in 2019. The only thing missing is a win in World Series play, but considering his legendary ALCS performance being essential to the Astros even getting to the World Series that season, I give Verlander the nod for consistent greatness the entire three years he was here.