Richard Justice: Verlander’s departure from Astros was inevitable. It still stings

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: Verlander’s departure from Astros was inevitable. It still stings

    The Astros had known for weeks this day was inevitable. Justin Verlander’s tenure with the franchise essentially ended the moment Jim Crane was informed weeks ago that his ace wanted a three-year contract worth $43 million a year in free agency.

   Crane knew Verlander would probably get it. Still, it doesn’t make his signing with the Mets for $86 million over two years (plus a $35-million vesting option for 2025) sting any less.

   His departure leaves a huge hole in the rotation both in terms of innings and performance. In his three full seasons, he won two Cy Young Awards and had a second-place finish. The Astros were 71-31 in his 102 regular-season starts.

  He had a microscopic 2.26 ERA in those 102 starts, and his 187 ERA+ means his performance was 87 percent above league average. He was an ace in every single way the word can be defined.

   He also changed the Astros in the most positive of ways the moment he walked into the clubhouse on Sept. 1, 2017. He won all five of his starts down the stretch that season to help get a struggling team back on track, and his seven-inning shutout of the Yankees in Game 6 of the American League Championship Series will stand forever as one of the great pitching performances in Astros history.

   His meticulous preparation, raging competitive fire, and ability to incorporate the team’s avalanche of data with his old-school approach are a model for every player regardless of position.

    Much was made of Verlander’s inability to get a World Series win until Game 5 this year, but his 3.87 ERA in 19 postseason appearances added to his Hall of Fame standard.

   If only the economics hadn’t gotten in the way. As much as Crane loves Verlander, as much as virtually every fan of this team adores the guy, Crane wasn’t going to pay him $43 million a season.

   Even without Verlander, the Astros payroll is going to be pushing $200 million after Crane adds the offensive help his team must have after scoring 116 fewer runs in 2022 than it had in 2021.

   With a surplus (he hopes) of starting pitching, Crane was forced to make a tough call. He had no argument with Verlander wanting $43 million. That’s what the Mets paid Max Scherzer a year ago.

   Crane knew Verlander might get that deal in a free-agent market starved for starting pitching even though Scherzer is 17 months younger than Verlander, who’ll turn 40 in February.

    On the other hand, great franchises have to make excruciatingly tough decisions, and the Astros under Crane have shown they’re willing to make them.

   The Astros continued to thrive even after the departures of George Springer, Carlos Correa, Gerrit Cole, and Dallas Keuchel, and there’s no reason to think they won’t keep going in 2023 without Verlander.

   But there’s risk. The Astros will go to spring training with six starters: Framber Valdez, Lance McCullers, Cristian Javier, Luis Garcia, Jose Urquidy, and Hunter Brown.

   There are no obvious solutions in the farm system, but Brown hadn’t emerged as a potentially dominant starter at this time last season. At the moment, the two minor leaguers who appear closest to being major league ready are both outfielders: Justin Dirden and Pedro Leon.

   If those six stay healthy, no problem. Punch those tickets for a fifth World Series in seven seasons. But the attrition rate on pitching is frighteningly high.

   If, say, two of those guys are injured, the Astros will be scrambling for a starter, which could open the door for the Mariners or Rangers in the American League West. That’s why Crane almost certainly will look to add a back-of-the-rotation starter for insurance.

   Crane filled one of his offensive holes with the signing of first baseman Jose Abreu for $58.5 million over three years.

   Now, he’s sorting through other options. Michael Brantley might be the first choice, but he’s 35 years old and recovering from shoulder/neck surgery.

   He’ll be six months removed from surgery when spring training begins, and while he appears to be on track for a full recovery, there’s some uncertainty.

    That’s why the Astros have had discussions with free agent outfielder Andrew Benintendi and catcher Willson Contreras. The Astros apparently believe Contreras could play a few games in left field at Minute Maid Park even though only 39 of his 678 career games have been in the outfield. But either of them would be an offensive upgrade and position the Astros for another postseason run.

   On some level, this is all nitpicking because the Astros are still the envy of every other major league organization. There’s sure to be a drop-off at some point, but we’re not there yet.

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