Mandatory Credit: Photo by Eric Gay/AP/Shutterstock (13479570bx) Houston Astros starting pitcher Justin Verlander (35) celebrates the third out during the sixth inning in Game 1 of baseball’s American League Championship Series between the Houston Astros and the New York Yankees, in Houston ALCS Yankees Astros Baseball, Houston, United States – 19 Oct 2022
John McClain: Verlander free agency headlines Astros’ off-season questions
As owner Jim Crane pointed out Wednesday at a news conference announcing manager Dusty Baker’s new one-year contract, the Astros have until 4:00 p.m. Thursday to negotiate with pitcher Justin Verlander before he becomes an unrestricted free agent.
Verlander, who turns 40 in February, was the Astros’ best pitcher this season with an 18-4 record and a 1.75 ERA. For the second time, he played a significant role in helping the Astros win a World Series even though he was coming off Tommy John surgery that forced him to miss all but one start in the 2020 and 2021 seasons.
After a six-year run in which they have reached the ALCS each season, including four World Series and two titles, the Astros are hungry for more. Crane wants to make sure there is no end in sight for the dynasty he is overseeing. One of his toughest decisions will be on Verlander.
Verlander, who is favored to win the American League Cy Young Award, was going to make $25 million in 2023. Because he reached 130 innings, he was able to opt out of the last year of his contract. Crane made clear his intentions of trying to sign Verlander to a new deal, but there should be a lot of competition for a pitcher coming off one of the best seasons of his 18-year career.
“Justin had a really great year,” Crane said. “We have a really good relationship with him, both Dusty and I and (general manager) James (Click). I think we have until 4:00 p.m. (Thursday) to (have) free time to talk to him. We’ve been talking to him. We’re working on it. We’re going to do our best to try to keep him.”
If Crane is able to bring back Verlander, the Astros will again have seven legitimate starting pitchers – Verlander, Framber Valdez, Lance McCullers Jr., Cristian Javier, Luis Garcia, Jose Urquidy and Hunter Brown. If they are able to avoid serious injuries for a second consecutive year, Baker’s toughest decision will be who is in and who is out of his starting rotation.
The Astros have needs but not as many as in recent years when they lost players like pitcher Gerrit Cole, centerfielder George Springer and shortstop Carlos Correa as free agents.
What the Astros do not need going into the offseason is pitching. They are the envy of almost every team with a deep starting staff and a talented bullpen that is the best in baseball.
During the news conference, Crane mentioned Verlander and relief pitcher Rafael Montero, who is a free agent coming off the best season of his career with a 2.37 ERA and 14 saves in 71 appearances.
Verlander is going to get offers. It is not out of the question that he will get a two- or three-year deal that averages $40 million. Crane has not operated in that kind of financial stratosphere, and it is hard to argue against his personnel decisions considering the Astros continue to win.
Last year, pitcher Max Scherzer left the Dodgers for the Mets for a three-year, $130-million contract. He earned $43.3 million this year. He was 37 when he signed.
Mets owner Steve Cohen has a bottomless pit of money. His best player, pitcher Jacob deGrom, opted out of his contract. Even though deGrom is coming off back-to-back injury-hampered seasons, Cohen wants to keep him. If deGrom leaves, Cohen could turn to Verlander to ease the pain of the Mets losing the second-best pitcher in franchise history to Tom Seaver.
Whether it is Crane or another owner, the team that signs Verlander is going to get one of the best right-handers in history coming off an extraordinary season.
Verlander, who has earned $142.4 million in his five years (2018-22) since the Astros acquired him late in the 2017 season, finished with his second-most victories since 2011. Only three times in his career has he won more than the 18 victories he posted this season.
Opponents batted .186 against Verlander. He limited them to an OPS of .497, second lowest of his career. He struggled in the World Series, starting two games and winning one, with a 5.40 ERA.
Other than Verlander, every starting pitcher is under contract through at least the 2025 season. Other than Montero, every important relief pitcher is under contract for at least another year. Ryan Pressly and Bryan Abreu, both of whom were magnificent in the playoffs, have multiple years remaining.
Even if Verlander signs with another team, pitching will not be an issue going into spring training in late February.
Valdez (17-6, 2.82 ERA), Garcia (15-8, 3.72), Urquidy (13-8, 3.94) and Javier (11-9, 2.54) reached double figures in victories. McCullers (4-2, 2.27) made a successful recovery from an elbow strain.
When Brown was promoted, he appeared in seven games, compiling a 2-0 record in two starts with a 0.89 ERA.
“What’s great about this team is the pitching staff is so deep,” Crane said.
If Crane is able to retain Verlander, having seven starting pitchers could give the Astros ammunition to trade one for a centerfielder, first baseman or a designated hitter since Baker plans to play Yordan Alvarez more in left field.
The Astros also have to do something about getting catcher Martin Maldonado some help like this season when they acquired at the trade deadline Boston’s Christian Vazquez, who is a free agent.
If Baker decides Chas McCormick did enough in the playoffs to play centerfield full time, the primary needs are first base if Yuli Gurriel is not re-signed and designated hitter.
“We’ll certainly work very hard on the key spots,” Crane said. “I don’t think we need to make a lot of adjustments. We’ll try to add a little more depth, a little more pop – maybe a bat or two. We have the resources to do it.”
The Astros need more pop at the bottom of the lineup. During the season, once they got beyond Jose Altuve, Jeremy Pena, Alvarez, Alex Bregman and Kyle Tucker, it was a crap shoot about which hitters would produce.
Gurriel, 38, was awful at the plate during the season and awesome in the playoffs, but his contract expired. He was not as effective in the field as he was in 2021. He has been a key component of the winning culture the Astros have established in the clubhouse. If he is not re-signed, the Astros will have a hole at first base that must be filled by a player who can provide that “pop” Crane is looking for.
Whatever decisions the Astros make during the offseason will be made with one goal in mind – becoming the first World Series champion to repeat since the Yankees won three in a row from 1998-2000.
(John McClain writes four columns a week for GallerySports.com. He can be heard Tuesday, Wednesday and Friday on Sports Radio 610 and Monday and Thursday on Texans Radio. He does three weekly Houtopia podcasts for 610. He also can be read three times a week on SportsRadio610.com).