WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. -- The Astros’ starting pitching depth, already questionable when Spring Training began, thinned out a lot more on Monday with the news that ace right-hander Justin Verlander is likely to miss the start of the season with a mild right lat strain.
The timetable for recovery has not yet been determined, but Verlander was definitive with his guess on the likelihood of healing in time for the opener.
“I would say it would probably take a miracle to be back by Opening Day,” he said. “But I don't want to leave miracles off the table.”
Verlander has been shut down, with no timetable regarding when he’ll resume throwing. The right-hander was somewhat optimistic about the more distant future, pointing out the timing, while not ideal, could have been worse if this happened later in the season, closer to the playoffs.
But the reigning American League Cy Young Award winner was also realistic about the events of the week.
“Talking with doctors and looking at the scans, it's definitely not worst-case scenario,” Verlander said. “Best-case scenario would be [no injury]. It's just probably somewhere in the middle of that.”
“You're always concerned with a guy like this of his caliber,” general manager James Click said. “But at the same time, by and large, I think the news we got today was on the positive side.”
Verlander, 37, was removed from Sunday’s 3-1 loss to the Mets with what was initially diagnosed as triceps soreness in his right arm. An MRI revealed the strain of the lat muscle, which is near the triceps.
In 2015, Verlander was sidelined for the first two months of the season with a strained right triceps. He debuted on June 13 that year. On Monday, he estimated this injury isn’t as bad as the last one.
“I feel better than I did then, physically,” Verlander said. “There’s a lot of feedback that I’ve gotten back about lat strains. One of the most important things is how you feel physically. I’m trying to be very truthful with myself with this process. I’m trying to recall how I felt in ’15. I definitely feel better this time than then.”
In his start vs. the Mets, Verlander was hoping to throw four innings in his second Grapefruit League start of the season, but was pulled after two innings and 29 pitches.
Verlander said his past experience with this type of injury sped up his decision to come out of the game when he did.
“I probably wouldn’t have said anything before if I hadn’t experienced it already,” he said.
So how does this affect the Astros’ rotation? Replacing Verlander, who threw 223 innings and recorded a 2.53 ERA over 34 starts in 2019, is nearly impossible. In the short-term, the math is relatively simple. The three pitchers who were competing for one spot in the rotation -- Austin Pruitt, Framber Valdez and Josh James -- will now be competing for two. Count Bryan Abreu, who impressed during his limited time in the big leagues last year, as an option, too.
Beyond that, it gets thin. Next on the depth chart is Christian Javier, the club’s No. 6 prospect per MLB Pipeline. He was recently assigned to Minor League camp.
Click spoke highly of the internal options as they figure out how to replace Verlander in the short-term.
“That's why we talk about pitching depth and the importance of pitching depth and the fact that pitching depth can turn into no depth or a detriment very, very quickly,” Click said. “Having guys that are fighting it out for spots in the rotation, whom we all feel very good about, that's why this is important to have that.”
But McCullers is coming off Tommy John surgery that cost him the entire '19 season and is likely to be on an undetermined innings limit. The fourth spot in the rotation is occupied by José Urquidy, who made his Major League debut last year.
There won’t be a quick fix for this, given Verlander’s value, but the feeling for now is this may be a short-term dilemma.
At least that’s what the Astros are hoping.
“The way we look at it, we dodged a bullet and now it's time for us to get him ready and get whoever's going to take his place ready,” manager Dusty Baker said. “That's why you have as many starters as you can. You hate that it happened to your horse, but you can either worry about the problem or you can try to come up with a solution. We're in the process now of trying to come up with a solution.”