12:42pm: Verlander himself sounds as though he’s expecting to open the season on the injured list (Twitter link via Rome): “I would say it would probably take a miracle for me to be back by Opening Day.”
12:07pm: The Astros have shut right-hander Justin Verlander down for the time being due to a “mild lat strain,” general manager James Click tells reporters (Twitter link via Chandler Rome of the Houston Chronicle). There’s no timetable for when Verlander will resume throwing yet, and the organization is uncertain as to whether Verlander will be ready for Opening Day.
There were far worse potential outcomes as Houston fans braced for the worst when Verlander exited yesterday’s start and went in for an MRI. Indeed, Click indicated that, “By and large, the news we got today was on the positive side.” While any injury to a starter of Verlander’s caliber is problematic, the lack of any tearing or structural damage in his arm surely came as a sigh of relief. That said, it’s still a discouraging development for a team with mounting questions on the pitching staff. If Verlander proves unable to take the ball come Opening Day, one would imagine that fellow veteran Zack Greinke would get the nod in the season opener. But beyond Greinke, the Astros are looking at Tommy John returnee Lance McCullers Jr. and the relatively inexperienced Jose Urquidy in the third and fourth slots in the rotation.
Presently, Austin Pruitt and Josh James are the presumptive front-runners for the fifth spot in the rotation, but both could be start games early in the season in the event of an IL stint for Verlander. Alternatively, the ’Stros could look to use an opener early in the year. Click, it should be noted, was hired out away from the Rays earlier this winter — the organization that pioneered the opener tactic at the Major League level.
One in-house alternative, right-hander Rogelio Armenteros, has already been shut down due to elbow discomfort. Brad Peacock has yet to throw in a game this spring, as he’s been slowed by neck pain. He’s been slated for bullpen duties anyhow. Other options could include right-hander Cy Sneed or lefties Framber Valdez and Cionel Perez. However you want to judge the race for the final few spots, an Astros rotation that until very recently was a legitimate powerhouse now has more questions than answers. And at this point, it’s not as if Houston can simply go out into the free-agent market and plug a starter into their staff. Jason Vargas, Clay Buchholz and Andrew Cashner are among the unsigned names of note, but Opening Day is a mere 15 days away; none from that bunch would be ready in time.
Perhaps Click and his staff will explore other avenues, but no one should expect a proven big league starter to be on the move at this point of Spring Training. And with the Astros about $23MM over the luxury tax threshold as it is, they don’t seem likely to take on any sort of meaningful salary. Waiver claims and deals for veterans who opt out of minor league pacts elsewhere could help to replenish the depth, though, and it wouldn’t be a surprise to see the club make any moves along those lines.