Justin Verlander Solidifies the Astros as the American League's Best Team
So the Houston Astros finally went out and did it, huh?
After being linked to nearly every top-of-the-rotation starting pitcher for nearly a year, Houston pulled off a last-minute deal with the Detroit Tigers on Thursday night and acquired former MVP and Cy Young Award winner Justin Verlander for a trio of prospects. Verlander will now join a rotation that consists of Dallas Keuchel, Lance McCullers, Charlie Morton and either Mike Fiers or Collin McHugh, giving Houston a rotation to match their already-outstanding offense.
This was not a move aimed at winning the American League West, with the Astros still had an 11.5 game lead with one month of baseball left to play. This was a move for October, and the addition of Verlander gives the Astros a true Game 1 or 2 starter that can match up with anything any other AL team will throw at them in the postseason.
While Verlander's season totals don't look as good as last year's, he's still been very good and has been red-hot lately. In 28 starts overall (172 innings) he has a 3.82 ERA and a 4.02 fielding independent pitching (FIP), striking out 24.1% of batters faced, down a bit from last year's mark of 28.1%. His walk rate is also up a bit, from 6.3% to 9.2% this year.
But since May 30, he has a 3.24 ERA, with 118 strikeouts in 111 innings, a K-rate of 25.5%, and an opponents batting average against of .221. Over his last nine starts he's been straight fire, with an ERA of 2.32, a strikeout rate of 30.5% and a walk rate of 5.4%. Hitters are batting a paltry .187.
As a 10-5 player, Verlander could block a move to any team, and it was reported he initially did block a move to Houston, but ultimately decided to let the deal go through to play for a contender. And the deal instantly makes the prohibitive favorites in the American League even better.
Houston's starting rotation hasn't been "bad" this season. Their 12.3 fWAR is fourth-best among all AL starting staffs, and their team ERA of 4.15 is fifth. Their 24.4% strikeout rate as a rotation is third-best in the AL, and their team WHIP of 1.29 is fifth. We're not talking about a collection of stiffs, here.
But injury concerns and durability issues have been a worry for the Astros all season. Keuchel and McCullers, their two best starters, have both spent time on the DL, and after pitching just 9 combined innings in June and July, Keuchel posted an ERA of 5.05 in 35.2 August innings.
What's the most incredible about Verlander is how his stuff has become so nasty once again. His fastball has averaged 95.3 mph this year, almost two full mph better than last year (93.5 mph). He's also used his slider more in 2017 at the expense of his change-up, and that combination of ace-type stuff has made him deadly once again.
This move isn't just about this year for Houston. Verlander is signed for the next two seasons at $28 million per year, taking him through his age-36 season, with a vesting option of $22 million for 2020 if he finishes in the top-five of Cy Young voting in 2019. Verlander will continue to front this rotation as the Astros are in the midst of their championship window.
As for the Tigers, they are clearly now in rebuilding mode. They dealt outfielder Justin Upton to the Los Angeles Angels earlier in the day and are shedding payroll as quickly as possible. They picked up quality prospects from Houston in the Verlander deal, hauling in their No. 3 prospect, 19-year-old right-handed starter Franklin Perez, ranked No. 32 overall in Baseball America's mid-season updated rankings. They also received 20-year-old outfield prospect Daz Cameron and a 22-year-old catcher named Jake Rogers.
But the headline in this move is that the Astros have shored up the weakest area of their team with an ace pitcher who is throwing as well as he ever has. The addition of Verlander instantly makes Houston, who has struggled to a 10-17 record in August and were displaced earlier this week because of the massive flooding in Houston, the AL favorites once again.