If the Astros were wondering whether their offseason could get worse, they got their answer on Monday when Justin Verlander was shut down with a lat strain.
Houston Astros General Manager James Click tried to put a brave face on pitcher Justin Verlander’s injury while meeting with the media on Monday at their Spring Training facility in West Palm Beach.
Verlander, who left Sunday’s game against the New York Mets after just two of the four innings he was scheduled to throw, has been diagnosed with a mild lat strain that puts his availability for Opening Day very much in doubt.
The veteran righty said it would “take a miracle for me to be back by Opening Day.”
Click, though, says the news the Astros received about their star pitcher was positive and the club will take their time to see how he recovers before making a determination on how long he’ll be out.
“It’s a situation where we’re just going to reassess, see how he feels,” Click said, via Alyson Footer of MLB.com. “The thing right now is we’re going to no-throw for a little bit. We’ll see.”
Click doesn’t seem too worried, but anytime a pitcher who turned 37 last month and is entering his 16th season in the big leagues begins experiencing arm problems it has to be cause for concern.
Verlander was still at the top of his game in 2019, winning his second Cy Young Award after leading the league with 21 victories and a .803 WHIP, the second-best mark in the Live Ball era. A sign of how dominant he continued to be is that he had nine games where he went at least six innings giving up two or fewer hits (including his third career no-hitter), the most ever by a pitcher in a single season.
But Verlander is rapidly approaching the 3,000-inning mark in his career and has thrown 48 more innings than any other pitcher over the past four seasons. Only Adam Wainwright of the Cardinals enters 2020 older than Verlander among regular starting pitchers.
He’s also experienced a similar issue before. In 2015, Verlander missed the first two months of the season with a triceps strain and didn’t make his first start until mid-June. He ended that season with a losing record for only the second time in his career.
Should Verlander miss an extended period of time, the Astros don’t have an obvious candidate to replace him atop the rotation. Gerrit Cole is now in New York, while their depth took a hit when Wade Miley signed with the Reds and Collin McHugh went to Boston. Brad Peacock is the only other returning pitcher who threw at least 75 innings for the Astros last season.
Behind Verlander in the Astros rotation is Zack Greinke, the obvious candidate to take the mound on Opening Day if Verlander is still out. Greinke went 8-1 with a 3.02 ERA in 10 starts with Houston after a deadline-day deal last July.
Rookie Jose Urquidy got seven starts with the big league club last season and his last impression was a good one, pitching five shutout innings in Game 4 of the World Series against the Washington Nationals while giving up just two hits.
Lance McCullers Jr., an All-Star from 2017 who started Game 7 against the Dodgers that season, is returning to the rotation after missing all of last season following Tommy John surgery.
Beyond those three are a bunch of question marks and unknowns for the Astros to untangle. Right-hander Josh James has a strong arm, averaging 97 mph with his fastball in 2019, but has just four big-league starts in his career. Framber Valdez had a 5.86 ERA in his first full season a year ago. And Austin Pruitt, an “opener” for the Tampa Bay Rays the last three seasons, is the veteran of the group at 30 but has only 10 career starts.
The Astros will need to count on at least one of them to start if that “miracle” doesn’t arrive and Verlander can’t go by Opening Day. The Astros could find themselves in trouble without their ace. Just don’t expect fans and the rest of the league to feel sorry for them.