It’s a miracle the ligaments in Justin Verlander‘s right elbow lasted this long. He has thrown 48,822 pitches in the Major League Baseball regular season, another 3,109 high-intensity pitches in the postseason, numerous more deliveries in spring training and bullpen sessions and then all the ones in high school, college and his brief stint in the minors. Many of those, of course, were among the hardest in the game. Nolan Ryan hit 100 mph with regularity back in his prime, but when Verlander arrived in the majors in 2006 throwing 100 mph, he ushered in a new high-octane era of triple-digit radar readings.
When Verlander went down after his first start of 2020 for the Houston Astros, the immediate speculation was that he might need Tommy John surgery. He initially denied those reports and was attempting to pitch in the postseason, but he announced Saturday that he will undergo Tommy John surgery. “I was hopeful that I would be able to return to competition in 2020, however, during my simulated game unfortunately the injury worsened,” he wrote on Instagram.
Given the typical 12-to-14-month rehabilitation period, that means Verlander is likely out for the 2021 season as well — or at least the vast majority of it. It also means he might have pitched his final game for the Astros, as the two-year extension he signed in 2019 runs through 2021. It could mean he won’t resume his Hall of Fame career until 2022, when he will be 39 years old and will have made one start in two years.
With 226 career wins, two Cy Young Awards and three runner-up finishes, five strikeout titles and 72.3 career WAR, Verlander is already a lock for the Hall of Fame. His chances of winning 300 games, however, take a big hit. Coming off 21 wins in 2019, “The Bill James Handbook” estimated his chances of winning 300 at 54%. With the COVID-19-shortened season and now the injury, 300 looks like more of a longshot. He’d have to average 14.8 wins over five seasons, which would take him through his age-43 season. That’s even assuming he’s able to come back at an elite level at 39 years old.
For the Astros, the short-term outlook is obviously damaging to their playoff hopes. Their rotation probably lines up as Zack Greinke, Lance McCullers Jr., Framber Valdez and Jose Urquidy. That actually still looks like one of the best in the American League. Greinke is 3-2 with a 3.90 ERA, with better peripheral numbers than the ERA indicates. Valdez has had some outstanding starts, including his last one, when he fanned 11 — all on his curveball, although that was against a terrible Rangers lineup. Urquidy has only recently returned after missing time with COVID-19 but has a 2.70 ERA in three starts, and he came up big last postseason. McCullers has been a playoff hero before.
The Astros are pretty much locked into the No. 6 seed as the second-place team in the AL West — although as they stumble along at 25-26, they’ve been unable to completely shake a bad Mariners team, which is only three games behind. As of now, the Astros will face the A’s, who dominated the season series 7-3 while limiting the Astros to 25 runs in the 10 games.
Indeed, the offense has been nowhere near the powerhouse it’s been in recent years, hitting .239/.311/.408, compared to .274/.352/.495 last season. Yes, they deserve all the cheating jokes coming their way, because they certainly didn’t disprove the skeptics with the meager output this season. The Astros won’t be the AL favorite, but this team has enough starting pitching and enough big names in the lineup to get hot at the right time. I wouldn’t pick them to reach the World Series, but don’t discount their chances.
In the big picture, I do wonder whether this is the end of the era, this run that started in 2015 and included the now-controversial 2017 World Series title and three straight 100-win seasons from 2017 to 2019. They will now be without Verlander for 2021, and George Springer, Michael Brantley, Yuli Gurriel and Josh Reddick are all free agents. Given the current stink hovering over the entire organization, what are the odds any of those players are wearing an Astros uniform in 2021? These guys are all 30-something, so the Astros would possibly go in another direction anyway.
Springer would be the one guy you would most want to bring back, but there’s a longstanding grudge between him and the organization after it tried to sign him to a long-term deal when he was still a minor leaguer and delayed his promotion to the majors. In a thin free-agent market, he’ll also be one of the most sought-after players available.
Then Greinke, McCullers and Carlos Correa are all free agents after 2021. Depending on which direction the Astros go, those three could all be trade bait this offseason. Alex Bregman and Jose Altuve are signed long term and Yordan Alvarez will be a monster after missing all but one game in 2020, but Altuve in particular has been terrible and will turn 31 next season. He’s signed through 2024, but it’s fair to ask what kind of player he’ll be the next four seasons.
I wouldn’t necessarily expect the Astros to be terrible. If they keep Greinke and McCullers to go with Urquidy, Valdez, Cristian Javier and maybe Forrest Whitley, that could still be a top rotation. They should have money to spend in free agency, although Verlander’s $33 million salary takes a big bite out of the team’s total payroll next year. Still, the Astros will no longer be the division favorites like they’ve been, and without Springer and Brantley they’re losing their two best hitters from 2020.
So it does feel like the 2021 team will look much different from the past few years. How will history judge the 2015-2020 Astros? Not kindly, or at least not as kindly as the dominant run of 100-win seasons would otherwise suggest. The Jeff Luhnow Astros will be remembered for ushering in the tanking era. There’s no doubt it worked, at least for the Astros, who ended up with three straight No. 1 overall picks, two of whom turned into Correa and Bregman. But the tanking philosophy also left an ugly scar on the game, creating an era of noncompetitive franchises as they attempted to rebuild.
Luhnow’s devotion to analytics certainly forced other franchises into rethinking their models of player evaluation and development in order to catch up to the Astros and other industry leaders. But it also came with a sense of winning at all costs. Yes, this is professional sports and winning is the bottom line (besides making money for the owners), but that mindset led to trading for reliever Roberto Osuna, who was in the midst of a suspension at the time following a domestic violence arrest. It led to hiring former assistant general manager Brandon Taubman, fired last fall after inappropriate comments directed at a group of female reporters in the Astros’ clubhouse.
Most of all, however, the Luhnow Astros will be remembered as cheaters. Perhaps that win-at-all-costs atmosphere allowed players to conclude that sure, cheating during games is OK. Maybe the Astros were merely a product of technology that had gone unchecked throughout the sport. In the end, they got caught, and their 2017 World Series win is tarnished.
So, yes, the Astros won a lot of games. The Verlander trade minutes before the deadline in 2017 will go down as one of the most important in franchise history, as they probably don’t beat the Dodgers without him that October (let alone the Yankees in the ALCS). Verlander’s legacy is secure, but that of the 2015-2020 Astros will forever remain complicated and sad.