Throughout the Houston Astros' singularly humiliating offseason, their baseball operations department - which found itself headless for several weeks following the dismissal of general manager Jeff Luhnow in January - was quiet.
As the Astros attempted to navigate a precipitous fall from grace and its seismic fallout, the business of baseball was either exceedingly difficult to pull off or consciously de-prioritized. The reigning American League champions brokered only two trades this winter, both of which were completed before commissioner Rob Manfred rendered his judgment on their sign-stealing crimes and neither of which will meaningfully impact their 2020 campaign. Meanwhile, their free-agent spending totaled roughly $15.65 million, less than Cole Hamels commanded on his one-year deal with the Atlanta Braves. Their two biggest signings were Martin Maldonado and Joe Smith, both of whom played for the club in 2019.
On one hand, the Astros didn't need to do much to remain a juggernaut in 2020, even without Gerrit Cole, who signed a record-breaking $324-million contract with the New York Yankees in December. Thanks to the robust core Luhnow assembled - a group highlighted by Jose Altuve, Carlos Correa, George Springer, Michael Brantley, Yordan Alvarez, Justin Verlander, and Zack Greinke - the Astros were going to be a World Series contender in 2020 regardless. Still, with Cole gone and the refurbished Yankees looking increasingly indomitable, plus the ascendant Oakland Athletics primed to threaten for the AL West title, the Astros' margin for error would be considerably smaller than it was in 2019, when they set a franchise record with 107 regular-season wins.
And having neglected (or otherwise been unable) to beef up their starting pitching depth this offseason, their margin for error in 2020 may now be razor-thin.
Verlander, the reigning American League Cy Young Award winner and the linchpin of Houston's rotation, was diagnosed Monday with a mild lat strain after leaving his Grapefruit League start early Sunday with what the team later described as right triceps soreness. The 37-year-old right-hander was scheduled to throw four innings against the New York Mets, but he made it through just two - throwing 29 pitches, and with diminished velocity relative to his previous spring outing - before being pulled and sent for an MRI. Verlander has been shut down. It's not clear when he'll resume throwing, and he effectively admitted he won't be able to take the mound when the Astros open their regular season March 26 against the Los Angeles Angels at Minute Maid Park.
"I would say it would probably take a miracle for me to be back by Opening Day," Verlander said.
Houston general manager James Click characterized the MRI results as being "on the positive side," but it's fair to say that an arm-adjacent injury to Verlander severe enough to warrant a shutdown is among the most worrisome developments the Astros could face at this point. Their rotation was thin with him and only projected as a strength because of his outsized contributions. According to FanGraphs, Houston's collection of starters projects for 16.1 WAR in 2020, the seventh-highest mark in the majors. That may sound impressive, but Verlander is projected to account for one-third of those marginal wins.
|Lance McCullers Jr.||139||2.8||3.88||3.86|
Had the Astros added another reliable starter via trade or free agency this winter, a long-term injury to Verlander - who missed two months with a triceps injury in 2015 and was markedly less effective upon his return - could've been mitigated. Instead, the Astros will be forced to rely upon a more suspect option should Verlander miss time, adding another unproven or dubious arm to a rotation that was already rife with uncertainty beyond Verlander and Greinke. Lance McCullers Jr., the Astros' presumptive No. 3 starter when camps opened, missed the entire 2019 season after undergoing Tommy John surgery and has never thrown enough innings in a season to qualify for the ERA title. Jose Urquidy has thrown 41 major-league innings and was never been a consensus top-100 prospect. The other three leading candidates for a starting job - Josh James, Framber Valdez, and Austin Pruitt - come with question marks of their own. (Brad Peacock, for his part, seems to be a full-time reliever now, while top prospect Forrest Whitley needs more minor-league seasoning before the Astros will seriously consider bringing him up.)
In short, Verlander is Houston's most irreplaceable player. The Astros' offense, which was the best in the majors in 2019 after adjusting for park effects, will remain elite should Altuve or Correa or Springer require a trip to the injured list. Their bullpen should be stalwart, too, even amid a hypothetical injury absence from Roberto Osuna or Ryan Pressly. The rotation, however, would crumble without Verlander. Losing him for months could jeopardize their chances of winning a fourth straight division title.
Of course, it remains to be seen whether Verlander will indeed miss a significant amount of time, but an indefinite shutdown remains ominous. Given their paucity of appealing replacement options, the uncertainty adds another layer of dread to a spring training that has already been pretty dreadful for the Astros from the looks of it.
Hostility from opposing fans won't derail Houston's season, though.
Jonah Birenbaum is theScore's senior MLB writer. He steams a good ham. You can find him on Twitter @birenball.