Astros confident young rotation can thrive after loss of ace

December 6th, 2022

SAN DIEGO -- If any team is built to withstand the loss of a Cy Young Award-winning ace pitcher, it’s the Astros, whose remarkable pitching depth carried them to a World Series title last month. Perhaps that’s why the Astros were willing to let Justin Verlander walk in free agency.

Verlander’s terrific tenure in Houston has come to an end after the Mets on Monday agreed to terms with him on a two-year, $86 million contract with a $35 million vesting option for 2025, a source with knowledge of the deal confirmed. The team has not announced the contract.

“I'm going to miss him,” Astros manager Dusty Baker said Monday.

The Astros, who led the American League in ERA and strikeouts last season and flexed their pitching dominance by going 11-2 during their run to the championship, will enter the 2023 season with a rotation of Framber Valdez, Lance McCullers Jr., Cristian Javier, José Urquidy and Luis Garcia. Top prospect Hunter Brown will be in the mix, as well.

“We feel very good with where our starting pitching is at right now,” assistant general manager Bill Firkus said. “We tried to set up the roster so, whether [Verlander is] back or not, we’re in a good position.”

The loss of Verlander brings an end to a wildly successful run with the Astros. Acquired moments before the Trade Deadline in 2017 after 12 seasons in Detroit, Verlander earned two Cy Youngs with the Astros and finished second once, won two World Series titles, reached 3,000 career strikeouts and threw his third career no-hitter.

“He's a pleasure to manage because I knew what I was getting every day,” Baker said. “He's probably gotten a little more humility since he got hurt and was out, and you appreciate what you have now. He has a little girl. That gives you a different outlook on life. And I love it when I can go full bullpen the day before he pitches, full bullpen the day after he pitches. And then he would stop all losing streaks and prolong winning streaks.”

Last season, Verlander went 18-4 with a 1.75 ERA and was the unanimous winner of the AL Cy Young Award, the third of his career, and picked up his first career World Series win in Game 5 against the Phillies. Verlander missed the 2021 season after undergoing Tommy John surgery and returned to win the AL Comeback Player of the Year award.

“His accolades and stat sheet speak for itself,” outfielder Kyle Tucker said. “Outside of that, he was a really good person. ... The Mets got a good one in him.”

This is the fourth consecutive year the Astros have lost a high-profile free agent -- Gerrit Cole after the ’19 season, George Springer after ’20, Carlos Correa after ’21 and now Verlander, who declined a $25 million option to remain in Houston next season. The Astros’ philosophy of not handing out massive long-term deals to free agents hasn’t hurt them on the field. They’ve played in six consecutive ALCS, won four pennants and two World Series titles since 2017.

The Astros’ sustained success is, in part, because they’ve locked up cornerstone players like Jose Altuve, Alex Bregman and Yordan Alvarez before they hit free agency (Springer and Correa turned down extension offers) while prioritizing shorter deals to free agents. They signed first baseman José Abreu to a three-year, $58.5 million deal earlier this month.

The five remaining starters in the Astros’ rotation are all under 30 years old with each having at least three years of team control remaining. McCullers (4-2, 2.27 ERA last season) has four years left on his five-year, $85 million contract, Valdez (17-6, 2.82 ERA), Javier (11-9, 2.54 ERA) and Urquidy (13-8, 3.94 ERA) have three years of control remaining and Garcia (15-8, 3.72 ERA) has four. Urquidy and Garcia weren’t even needed as starters in the playoffs.

Firkus boasted solid depth beyond that with Brown, as well as Brandon Bielak and J.P. France on the 40-man roster. France, added to the 40-man earlier this month, is among the next wave of starters. Right-hander Misael Tamarez (No. 18 prospect) and Jaime Melendez (No. 13 prospect) are non-40-man arms to watch, Firkus said.

“We know from our Draft, player acquisition, player development, we have a lot of confidence in those groups,” Firkus said. “We feel really good about our depth.”