HOUSTON -- Justin Verlander's impactful presence with the Astros on and off the field was a huge reason the club won the World Series last year. The veteran pitched some of the best baseball of his career after coming over in a trade with the Tigers on Aug. 31, and
HOUSTON -- Justin Verlander's impactful presence with the Astros on and off the field was a huge reason the club won the World Series last year. The veteran pitched some of the best baseball of his career after coming over in a trade with the Tigers on Aug. 31, and he was named MVP of the American League Championship Series.
Verlander carried himself as the ultimate professional and brought an aura to the clubhouse that permeated every corner. When Spring Training gets underway next week, the Astros will have the luxury of having six weeks of Verlander in camp for the first time. That's six weeks for younger pitchers like Lance McCullers and Gerrit Cole to watch Verlander's every move.
"His presence will immediately make everybody sit up straight, stand up a little bit more, have a little bit more energy," Astros manager A.J. Hinch said last October.
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If the Astros can stay healthy on the mound, which has been an issue the past two seasons, the starting rotation could be the best in baseball. Verlander, Cole and lefty Dallas Keuchel all started on Opening Day last year.
Throw in World Series hero Charlie Morton, veteran Collin McHugh and Brad Peacock, who had a breakout year last season, and there's depth and quality. Even if there are injuries, the Astros are built to overcome them.
Last season, McHugh was injured in spring camp and wound up missing the first 3 1/2 months of the season. Keuchel missed nearly eight weeks with two stints on the DL for neck issues, and McCullers was on the DL twice with back discomfort. The oft-injured Morton spent nearly two months on the DL with a strained lat.
The injuries opened the door for Peacock to move from the bullpen and have a breakout season as a starter, going 10-2 with a 3.22 ERA in 21 starts. How the Astros use him this season -- bullpen or relief -- figures to be a key storyline this spring. He proved last year he can be an asset in either role.
Keuchel, in the final year of his contract, was 14-5 with a 2.90 ERA in 23 starts last year and will be looking to navigate the spring healthy. The Astros also will be cautious with the health of Morton, who went 14-7 last year and won Game 7 in both the ALCS and World Series, and McCullers, who has yet to pitch a full, healthy season.
The addition of Cole and having Verlander this spring will take pressure off the others. Cole was injured two years ago and wasn't as effective last year, but a full spring of working with Astros pitching coach Brent Strom could help him go a long way toward recapturing his 19-win form of 2015.
Verlander will be 35 by the time the first Grapefruit League game hits. In his career, he's started nearly as many games as Keuchel, McCullers and Morton combined, and thrown for more innings. He has an AL MVP and Cy Young Award and will be an invaluable resource.
Sure, this spring will be about Jose Altuve and Carlos Correa, Alex Bregman and George Springer, but Verlander's presence in West Palm Beach, Fla., should not be overlooked.
Brian McTaggart has covered the Astros since 2004, and for MLB.com since 2009. Follow @brianmctaggart on Twitter.