Why the slumping Astros should try to 'buy' Justin Verlander despite their record
The Astros need help in the rotation, and Justin Verlander is reportedly available
Some facts: The Astros have a 13-game lead in the AL West and the American League's best record, and they're on pace for 101 wins. Some additional facts: The Astros are 2-7 in August; have a losing record in the second half; and are coming off a sweep at the hands of the lowly, stripped-for-parts White Sox.
On balance, the Astros are a great team with legitimate designs on winning the World Series for the first time in franchise history. However, in addition to struggling badly of late, they have concerns in the rotation. Dallas Keuchel's pitched like a frontline ace, but he has health concerns in his recent past. Lance McCullers Jr., when healthy, is a worthy No. 2, but he's on the DL with back problems after struggling badly in recent starts. Given his current status and lack of a high-volume season in the majors, he's not exactly a known quantity as Houston heads toward the postseason.
The Astros, then, have a manifest need for another frontline starter, and that's been apparent for some time. Still, the front office saw the non-waiver trade deadline come and go without addressing that need,. Of course, we're not even halfway through the August waiver period, and that means needle-moving trades are still possible.
There's also this:
Speaking of which -- and in keeping with widespread speculation -- the Astros should make a serious play for Tigers stalwart Justin Verlander.
Trading a player in August of course requires that said player first pass through waivers. Verlander, thanks largely to the breadth of his contract, has indeed made it through waivers, which means the Tigers can deal him to any team. If you look at Verlander's overall numbers -- 110 ERA+, 2.25 K/BB ratio -- they're shy of vintage or even near-vintage J.V. However,, and Verlander attributes his rediscovered success to some mechanical changes. That in tandem with his excellent 2016 campaign and strong velocity numbers in 2017 suggest that perhaps this renaissance is sustainable, at least in the near-term.
All of that circles us back to the Astros and their rumored interest in the 34-year-old right-hander. As noted above, the biggest impediment to a Verlander trade is his contract. Verlander still has roughly $60 million plus a pricey vesting option for 2020 left on his deal. Suffice it to say, that's a significant investment. Trades for veterans still on long-term contracts typically work one of two ways: the team trading the veteran kicks in cash in order to get better prospects in return, or they treat the trade as a salary dump and get back almost nothing of value. If you're the Astros, you're pushing for the latter scenario, as it allows you to hang on to those remaining long-term assets that you covet. Would the Tigers be open to such a straight salary offload? Given that they're a non-contender with a high payroll and given that they already have a huge commitment to Miguel Cabrera on the books, quite possibly.
As for the other side of things, the Astros should indeed be willing to take such a payroll hit. This season, they ranked just 16th in Opening Day payroll, and that's after ranking 20th in 2016 and 24th in 2015. And that span covers the Astros' return to relevance. Prior to that, they were in deep rebuild mode and running payrolls that were at or very close to the bottom. Attendance figures are solid, local TV revenues are coming in at a nice clip after a lengthy carriage dispute, and MLB franchises are generally rolling in Disney-BAMTech money. That is to say, the Astros have the money to take on Verlander's obligations (and then some). Owner Jim Crane has been a bit of skinflint during his tenure, yes, but that's a matter of choice, not necessity.
The other complicating factor is Verlander's no-trade clause, which, as the name implies, allows him to block trades. Such provisions, however, are more about than leverage than anything else. The appeal of going from bottom-feeder to contender always has appeal in such situations, but it usually comes down to money. Perhaps Verlander agrees to waive the clause in exchange for having that 2020 option guaranteed. Or, via MLB Network's Jon Morosi, there's also this recent wrinkle:
If Verlander is unsure about staying in Houston until his contract expires in 2019, he could insist on adding an opt-out clause to the contract following this season -- or '18 -- as a condition of waiving the no-trade protection.
The CBA's language allows Verlander to do so, according to sources with close knowledge of the document. The MLB Players Association would support such a request, because opt-out clauses are seen as increasing a contract's value -- even though activating an opt-out would involve Verlander forgoing $28 million in guaranteed salary in 2018 and/or '19.
Indeed, the new collective bargaining agreement allows players in Verlander's situation to in essence insert an opt-out into his contract as compensation for waiving no-trade provisions. If Verlander thinks he can do better on the open market than what he's got left on his Tigers contract, then that's strong incentive to approve a trade. If he continues his recent roll, then, yes, he probably would do better as a free agent, especially considering the inflation typically involved with free agent starting pitchers.
From the Astros' standpoint, this isn't necessarily a good thing. If Verlander thrives, then he in essence becomes a rental. If he struggles in Houston, then the club is still on the hook for those terms noted above. That said, this latitude for Verlander does make it more likely that he'd give his requisite blessing to a trade to Houston. And that's the fundamental thing -- assuming, of course, Detroit is willing to do this as a salary offload rather than a deal designed to restock the farm system.
All of this requires a specific mindset on the part Astros brass, and that mindset is one of "damn the torpedoes, let's go for it." Yes, it's an investment, and in the case of an opt-out they'd be assuming all the risk. However, they have the resources, and they have the need. But do they have the will? That's the question as August ticks away.
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