Mandatory Credit: Photo by JASON SZENES/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock (13607570ag) Houston Astros pitcher Justin Verlander throws against the Philadelphia Phillies in the bottom of the first inning of game five of the World Series at Citizens Bank Park in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, USA, 03 November 2022. MLB Houston Astros at Philadelphia Phillies, USA - 03 Nov 2022

Richard Justice: Greatness is difficult to replace, and that’s why Crane surely will be tempted to move heaven and earth to try and keep Verlander.

   Justin Verlander is going to be the most brain-twisting, stomach-churning decision Jim Crane has had to make in his 11 years as Astros owner. Yes, the Astros have baseball’s deepest pitching staff and probably can afford one departure. Yes, they have two significant lineup holes that will require significant resources to fill.

   Still, for Crane to simply shake Verlander’s hand and show him the door ignores what he has meant to this franchise and the value of a pitcher that performs at the highest level. Only let’s not start there, even in the wake of Verlander on Wednesday becoming the 11th pitcher in history to win at least three Cy Young Awards. (He won his first while with the Tigers in 2011 and his second with the Astros in 2019.)

He received all 30 first-place votes and easily outdistanced runner-up Dylan Cease of the White Sox, 210 points to 97. Astros lefty Framber Valdez finished fifth with 14 points.

“What a journey this has been,” Verlander said. “From the start of my Tommy John, when I knew I was going to have the surgery, that’s one of the toughest points in your career. Obviously, we talked about trying to stay positive.”

Regardless of how his free agency plays out, whether Verlander and Crane can strike a deal, or the possibility that Verlander would prefer to finish his career somewhere else, let’s pause to appreciate the Astros’ 39-year-old ace. This season, he did what no pitcher has ever done. No one. Ever. Even winning another Cy Young doesn’t begin to put his season in its fullest context.

   He’s the first pitcher to win a Cy Young Award the season after pitching zero innings. That’s because historically, the first year back on the mound after Tommy John surgery—Verlander had the procedure in 2020—typically is a transition year as a pitcher figures out what his reconstructed elbow will and won’t allow him to do.

   Verlander roared right back to greatness, as good, if not better than ever. His 1.75 ERA was the lowest of his 17-year career and the lowest for an AL pitcher since Pedro Martinez’s 1.74 in 2000.

“Once I picked up a ball, even the first day, I felt remarkably just normal,” Verlander said. “And I didn’t know how abnormal that was. I just really tried to enjoy this ride and just be very present and appreciate every moment. You know, because it was almost taken away from me. And you know, it’s makes it makes it all worth it.”

   Verlander also led the American League in wins, baserunners allowed, and opponents’ batting average, among other things. He’s the living, breathing definition of a No. 1 starter, going 9-0 with a 1.11 ERA in a dozen starts after Astros losses.

   Ten times, he pitched at least five innings and didn’t allow an earned run. Three times, he pitched at least five innings without allowing a hit. No one ever has done that, either.

   He didn’t monkey around throwing soft stuff or attempting to trick ‘em. Almost 80% of his pitches were about power: 50.4% fastballs and 28.3% sliders, both in the top 10 of major league pitchers in terms of usage.

   His 95.1-mph average fastball velocity was his second-highest since 2010 and the 10th-highest among all major league pitchers. Likewise, his 87.5-mph slider velocity was top 10 in the majors.

   Verlander’s ticket to the Hall of Fame was punched even if he hadn’t thrown a single pitch in 2022. In 17 seasons, he has finished second in AL Cy Young voting three times and finished in the top five nine times.

“I think you appreciate everything more,” he said when asked how 17 seasons has changed his perspective. “When you’re young, you just don’t understand what it takes to make things go your way.”

    His next reachable milestone is 300 wins. He’ll begin the 2023 season at 244, and if he gets there, he may be the last to ever do it, considering the evolving role of starting pitcher usage.

   The Astros were already a very good team when Verlander was acquired by trade from the Tigers on August 31, 2017. His arrival elevated them from very good to great.

   He was 61-19 with a 2.26 ERA overall with the Astros since 2017. They were 71-31 in his 102 regular-season starts. He also made 19 postseason starts with a 3.87 ERA.

   His long pursuit of a World Series victory ended in Game 5 of the 2022 World Series, but Astros fans will remember that he pitched Game 1 of a series seven times.

   He was at his best in allowing the Yankees one earned run in 16 innings in the 2017 American League Championship Series. That year in the World Series, he allowed five earned runs in 12 innings and was warming in the bullpen when Charlie Morton got the final out of Game 7. Besides two World Series rings, Verlander picked up the two Cy Young Awards, an ALCS MVP, his third career no-hitter, and his 3,000th strikeout with the Astros.

   “It’s been an incredible run,” Verlander said. “You know, going back to the decision my wife and I had to make in ’17 at the 11th hour, whether we would accept the trade or not. Obviously, if you’d have told me what was going to happen, it was a no-brainer. But at the time, it was a difficult decision to uproot our lives.

“Just coming to Houston, and the team’s success, has been incredible, and my personal success obviously, it has felt wonderful to be able to contribute to a part of an organization that has been a dynasty since probably 2015 or ’16. To just be a part of that is an incredible feeling. I don’t know if I could have could have written a better story.”

   No team has more pitching than the Astros, with six starters competing for five jobs next spring, even without Verlander. On the other hand, the attrition rate of pitching is frighteningly high. To simply show Verlander the door could be a terrible mistake. But the economics are difficult.

   “He texted me that he wants to be involved going forward,” Verlander said of his discussions with Crane. “I don’t know what the future holds. I’m going to be in a situation where the market will dictate this, and we’ll see what happens. Obviously, there are other people that are interested. Jim (Crane) understands that.” 

   Crane told MLB.com that Verlander is seeking a three-year, $140-million contract similar to the one Max Scherzer got from the Mets a year ago. Scherzer was entering his age 38 season at the time. Verlander will be 40 in February.

   Crane is hoping for a discount based on the lack of a state income tax in Texas. But even before adding more offense, seventeen Astros that are either signed or eligible for arbitration are estimated to put the payroll at around $156 million based on numbers compiled by Baseball Prospectus.

   To give Verlander, say, $35 million in 2023, then add two offensive players and fill out the remainder of the roster would send Crane’s price tag soaring way past last year’s $194 million.

   There’s an argument for Crane to spend the money, and there’s absolutely nothing sportswriters enjoy more than telling someone else how to spend.

   Here’s the case: payrolls are cyclical based on service time, and at some point, the Astros surely will end up back in a rebuilding mode with a lower payroll. For now, though, they’re good enough to win another World Series in 2023. If that happened, Crane would recoup some of that money with sponsorships, tickets, and television monies.

   The Astros won the World Series in 2022 with baseball’s ninth-highest payroll, a tribute to smart signings and a player development system that replenished the major league roster as George Springer, Carlos Correa, Gerrit Cole, and others departed via free agency.

   The Astros almost certainly will return to the postseason in 2023, no matter how things play out with Verlander. But the idea of him pitching for the Dodgers, Angels, or Yankees next October is one Jim Crane and countless Astros fans would prefer to avoid. 

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