In the pantheon of trades in Houston sports history, given that it directly impacted a world championship in 2017, and given that the subject continues to perform at an elite level, the Justin Verlander trade from August 31, 2017, stands above the rest.
Since arriving in Houston shortly after Hurricane Harvey a year and a half ago, all Verlander has done is put together one of the most dominant stretches of pitching in the history of the Astros' franchise — 21-9 with a 2.32 ERA in the regular season, 6-2 with a 2.83 ERA and a 2017 ALCS MVP in the postseason. The bottom line is simple — the Astros do not win the 2017 World Series (or even get there, really) without the services of Justin Verlander.
Given how surgical Jeff Luhnow has been in assembling this roster the last few years, somewhat appropriately, the Astros' top two starters heading into this season are the targets of his two biggest trades — Verlander and Gerrit Cole. That's good work by Luhnow, but the more difficult work, assuming both continue to pitch at a high level, will be figuring out how to sign both going forward. Those are just two of what are going to be several difficult contract extension decisions that owner Jim Crane and Luhnow will have to make in the coming years.
Conventional wisdom says that if both Verlander and Cole (15-5, 2.88 ERA, 276 K's in 2018) pitch at the same high level in 2019 that they did in 2018, and you could only choose one to re-sign to a multi-year extension, Cole would be the guy, based largely on age. Cole is 28 years old, Verlander will be 36 years old when the 2019 season starts.
Astro fans voting on my Twitter poll seem to agree:
For Astro fans (or baseball people) — question we discussed on Friday on #3T @SportsRadio610, if both have similar 2019 performances as they did in 2018, who do you give 4 yrs, $100M to next offseason? Verlander or Cole? You can only pick ONE...— Sean Pendergast (@SeanTPendergast) February 10, 2019
So I suppose Cole is the easy answer for most, but let's make the case for choosing Verlander:
Roger Clemens says Verlander can pitch forever!
Clemens, the 7-time Cy Young Award winner, was on my afternoon show on SportsRadio 610 last week, and he said that Verlander can pitch as long as he wants to:
If there's any pitcher that should be able to sense durability among his own type, it's Clemens. Verlander is 36 years old — Clemens, in his age 36 through age 42 seasons (1999-2005) went 108-48, with a 3.53, and won two Cy Young Awards. Another hard throwing ace, Randy Johnson, in his age 36 through age 42 seasons (2000-2006) went 120-59, with a 3.16 ERA, and won three consecutive Cy Young Awards and a World Series MVP. Why not Verlander, who, in an Astros uniform, is coming off one of the most productive stretches of a Hall of Fame career?
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Verlander's body of work makes him more trustworthy
Obviously, Cole's age gives you more potential seasons in the future, but the Astros are in a championship window right NOW, and to that end, Verlander's body of work gives you more to trust that he can perform at an ace level for the next few years. Cole's dip in performance in 2016 and 2017 are not onerously troublesome, but other than a 4.54 ERA back in 2014, Verlander doesn't have a similar dip anywhere on his resume. Also, how much of Cole's recovery in 2018 is the Brent Strom Effect? Verlander might be more immune to variables like a change in pitching coach or some other factors.
Verlander has intrinsic value for younger pitchers like Forrest Whitley
In my interview with Clemens, I asked him about the impact of the Red Sox acquisition of Hall of Fame Tom Seaver midway through Clemens' MVP and Cy Young season in 1986. Clemens gushed about how impactful it was to have the greatest pitcher of his generation sitting with him in the dugout. With no disrespect to Cole, Verlander can be that guy for the Forrest Whitleys of the organization for the next several years, a sage mentor sitting right there in the dugout between starts.