Inbox: Can Verlander join 'pen for playoffs?

Beat reporter Brian McTaggart answers questions from fans

August 26th, 2021

HOUSTON -- With only 35 games remaining in the regular season, the Astros (75-52) have a comfortable five-game lead in the American League West over the Oakland A’s (70-57) despite going 27-23 since June 27. The A’s have gone 24-24 in the same time frame, which has kept them from putting pressure on Houston.

The Astros are poised to win the division for the fourth time in the last five seasons -- and the fourth consecutive full season -- and are as healthy as they’ve been in quite some time. Six of their final nine games are against the A’s, so Houston's goal will be to have a big enough lead so those games don’t mean anything for the AL West standings.

Let’s open the Inbox and see what's on your mind:

Think (Justin) Verlander comes back for the playoffs?
-- @TylerRayner93

Several of you asked this, so let’s put this to bed once and for all. Verlander got hurt in July 2020, but he didn’t undergo Tommy John surgery until Sept. 30. The surgery typically comes with a one-year recovery, which puts him out for the regular season. Verlander, when he last addressed the media in May, left the door open for a playoff return in relief, but he said it was a long shot and would increase the risk of reinjury.

Whatever the case, general manager James Click said earlier this week on his weekly radio appearance on 790 AM in Houston that Verlander wouldn’t return for the playoffs. Where he plays next year? It’s hard to say, but you can bet the Astros will give him a qualifying offer.

Who is the most probable (Carlos) Correa replacement if he’s gone?
-- @StanekEnjoyer

If Correa bolts for free agency, which seems likely based on his reluctance to negotiate during the season, the Astros’ No. 1 priority this winter will be finding his replacement. The free-agent shortstop market is deep, though, with Trevor Story, Corey Seager, Marcus Semien and Javy Báez among the names who will be on the market.

If the Astros aren’t willing to pony up to re-sign Correa, who’s the youngest of the group, they will probably be hard-pressed to sign any of the other big-name free agents as well. The money figures to be crazy. Houston could easily shop in the shallow end of the free-agent pool (Andrelton Simmons, Alcides Escobar, Freddy Galvis, etc.), but it would probably be better served by giving one of its prospects a shot at that point. That means either Pedro León (the Astros' No. 2 via MLB Pipeline) or Jeremy Peña (No. 4).

Leon, signed by the Astros for $4 million out of Cuba in January as a center fielder, played mostly shortstop at Double-A Corpus Christi and Triple-A Sugar Land before breaking his left pinky finger sliding into second base in late July. He was expected to be out six weeks. Peña, a standout defensive shortstop, underwent wrist surgery in April and has recently started taking batting practice in Florida. He could play again this year.

What is the ETA on (José) Urquidy and would they go to a 6-man rotation, or does (Jake) Odorizzi go to the 'pen?
-- @JRAY0904

Urquidy, who hasn’t pitched for the Astros since June 29, threw four innings in a rehab start for Triple-A Sugar Land on Tuesday, allowing one run on two hits with six strikeouts. He threw 35 of 49 pitches for strikes. Impressive. Urquidy is scheduled to start again Sunday in what could be his final rehab start before rejoining the Astros next week.

When Urquidy comes back, the Astros could go to a six-man rotation during a 17-game stretch without a day off (Sept. 10-26). A six-man rotation would allow them to conserve some innings for Luis Garcia, who has already blown past his career high. If they don’t go to a six-man, they could move Odorizzi to the bullpen and use him to piggyback a starter like they did on June 15.

Name the postseason rotation in order. LMC (Lance McCullers Jr.)/ZG (Zack Greinke)/Urquidy/Garcia is my best guess.
-- @biardker27

Well, you’re leaving out an obvious starter in left-hander Framber Valdez, whose 2.94 ERA in 98 innings this year is tops among those who have started games for the Astros. Houston will need only four starters in the AL Division Series, and Valdez is a lock along with McCullers and Greinke. The other spot, at this point, comes down to Garcia or Urquidy.

Garcia could be used to piggyback a starter in the playoffs, like the Astros did so well in 2017 when McCullers followed Charlie Morton in Game 7 of the AL Championship Series and Morton threw the final four innings in Game 7 of the World Series. Odorizzi could fill that role, too, if he pitches well down the stretch.

Are the Astros’ starters good enough to take them through the playoffs this year? I know they got really close with Verlander and (Gerrit) Cole (in 2019) but couldn’t do it. Will that be a huge factor this time, or will offense be heavily leaned on like a good majority of the season?
-- @YoungSirSquatch

It’s hard to believe the Astros couldn’t win a World Series with Verlander and Cole -- the 1-2 finishers in the AL Cy Young race that year -- in their rotation. They finished eight outs shy and had Cole warming up in the bullpen in Game 7 but couldn’t close the door on the Nationals.

Sure, the Astros have enough starting pitching depth to win the World Series, but it’s going to be about more than that. Bullpens are so important in the playoffs. When and where to use your best relievers is paramount. Last year, the Astros caught fire offensively in the playoffs and came within a game of reaching the World Series once again. Houston has a roster that can win the World Series, but it’s a matter of playing well and getting a few breaks.

Do you think Jake Meyers has a chance to take over the starting CF role from Chas McCormick?
-- @MinuteMaidSnark

Meyers has been impressive since he was called up on July 31 and certainly has a shot to start in center field the rest of the year. He doesn’t look overmatched at the plate and has looked good on defense, too. That takes nothing away from McCormick, who landed on the injured list on Tuesday with a sore left hand. He should return in time for the Padres series next week in San Diego, but I wouldn’t be surprised to see McCormick return to a fourth outfielder role with Michael Brantley starting in left, Meyers in center and Kyle Tucker in right.

Is the plan for next season to use (Cristian) Javier as a starter again? He seems better in that role. Also, why didn’t the Astros bring Josh James up instead of (Bryan) Abreu? And what is the long-term prognosis on Enoli (Paredes)?
-- @ToddBrody

The Astros have four locks for their rotation next year: Valdez, McCullers, Urquidy and Garcia, with Javier possibly returning to a starting role. It’s unclear how the Astros will handle Odorizzi going forward, but he’s under contract for next year, too. No. 11 prospect Peter Solomon will be in the mix in 2022, and Brandon Bielak is getting stretched out as a starter once again and is throwing the ball harder. Don’t rule him out.

The Astros went with Abreu over James because Abreu was throwing the ball better at Triple-A. Not that James isn’t throwing well, but Abreu had some success when he was in the big leagues earlier this year. He has sort of passed James in the pecking order, so to speak.

As for Paredes, he’s making progress and trying to overcome control problems and issues with his delivery that need to be ironed out. In a sprint to the finish, the Astros needed some relievers who can consistently throw strikes.

September callups to look for?
-- @ReasonsRExcuses

Remember, rosters can only be expanded by two this year, going from 26 to 28 players, so don’t expect a ton of prospects to be called up like in years past. The return of Urquidy figures to fill one roster spot, and the other could be taken when McCormick is activated off the IL.