It’s always been a long shot that Justin Verlander would be able to return in 2021, but Astros general manager James Click confirmed to Sean Salisbury of SportsTalk 790 AM in Houston this morning that Verlander won’t pitch for the team down the stretch (link via Chandler Rome of the Houston Chronicle).
Click tells Salisbury that Verlander recently inquired with his doctors about the possibility and was “strongly advised” against attempting a comeback in 2021, as such a quick turnaround would carry “tremendous risk for the efficacy of the surgery.” Verlander had previously spoken with a hint of optimism about returning as a reliever in the season’s final weeks.
Verlander tweeted back in May that he planned to continue pitching “for a long time” and hasn’t considered retirement, but it’s not yet clear where he’ll continue his career. The 38-year-old (39 in February) is set to hit the open market at season’s end, though the ’Stros will first need to determine whether they want to make a qualifying offer to Verlander.
A one-year offer in the $19MM range would normally be deemed steep for any pitcher coming off a season spent rehabbing Tommy John surgery, but Verlander is, of course, no ordinary pitcher. He’s only pitched six innings since Opening Day 2020, but Verlander is a two-time Cy Young winner, a three-time Cy Young runner-up, an eight-time All-Star and a former American League MVP. His last full season, pitched at 36 years of age in 2019, saw him rack up 223 innings of 2.52 ERA ball en route to the second of those two Cy Young wins.
A straightforward path for Verlander may be to simply accept a payday in the $19MM range — if offered — and remain in a setting where he’s clearly comfortable. That sum checks in well north of the recent bounceback salaries we’ve seen for similarly high-profile names like Corey Kluber ($11MM), so there’d be good reason for him to consider it. On the other hand, it’s a pretty sizable cut from Verlander’s prior $33MM salary, and the veteran may simply want to test the free-agent market for the first time in his career. Verlander has played out his entire career on a series of extensions with the Tigers and Astros, so he’s never explored the open market.
The question for the Astros, meanwhile, is whether they’d want to invest $19MM (or thereabouts) into a soon-to-be 39-year-old pitcher who has made just one start since winning that Cy Young Award in 2019. There aren’t many more appealing players on whom to take a one-year flier than Verlander, but the Houston payroll is already rather large.
[Related: 2021-22 Qualifying Offer Candidates]
The Astros have just under $97MM on the books in 2022, and that’s before arbitration raises to Framber Valdez (first time eligible), Josh James (first time), Phil Maton (second time), Ryne Stanek (second time), Rafael Montero (third time) and Aledmys Diaz (third time). That $97MM number also doesn’t include club options for Yuli Gurriel ($8MM) or Ryan Pressly ($10MM) — both of which seem sure to be picked up, barring a late injury. None of those arb-eligible players will break the bank in terms of 2022 salary — some could obviously be non-tendered, too — but those smaller salaries will begin to add up.
Furthermore, the Astros will have some big names to replace. Carlos Correa is a free agent and could land elsewhere after rejecting the team’s extension overtures in Spring Training. Consummate innings eater Zack Greinke is set to hit the market as well, and the Astros also stand to lose relievers Kendall Graveman, Yimi Garcia and Brooks Raley to free agency. If Verlander were to accept a qualifying offer, the Houston payroll could jump north of $140MM before the team even looks at replacing Correa or any of the departing relievers. Their 2021 payroll currently sits at about $189MM.
The in-house rotation depth the Astros already possess is also a factor in determining whether to extend a qualifying offer to Verlander. Even with a pair of likely Hall of Famers potentially departing (Greinke, Verlander), the Astros can still boast a staff of Lance McCullers Jr., Luis Garcia,Valdez, Jake Odorizzi, Cristian Javier and Jose Urquidy. That’s before even considering upper-level arms like Hunter Brown and Peter Solomon. There’s an argument to be made that dedicating a sizable portion of available offseason resources to a rebound candidate in the rotation — even one with as much upside as Verlander — shouldn’t be the team’s priority.
We know the Astros are going to make a qualifying offer to Correa, and as one of the top free agents on the market, he’ll reject that QO without a second thought. Verlander is a closer call, but the Astros will surely be intrigued by the possibility of getting a compensatory pick after their recent penalties in the draft (stemming from the 2017 sign-stealing scandal). Plus, even with the in-house options they do have, a one-year deal for Verlander has plenty of appeal. The Astros could, and probably should, just extend the qualifying offer and be happy with either outcome.