Justin Verlander's arrival in Houston in September 2017 put the final piece in place for an insanely talented Astros team, one that had already run roughshod over the rest of the American League through the first five months of the season.
But just as some late-summer cracks were starting to show in Houston's roster, general manager Jeff Luhnow pulled off a last-second deal -- literally -- on the night of Aug. 31, adding a former AL MVP Award and AL Cy Young Award winner to lead the Astros' starting rotation down the stretch.
• Executive Access Podcast: How the Astros landed Verlander in '17
Here's the inside story of the transaction of the year, told by the people directly involved with the move.
Chapter 1: Dallas heat
Contenders around the Majors were making upgrades for their respective rotations prior to the July 31 non-waiver Trade Deadline.
The Cubs dealt for Jose Quintana of the White Sox early in the month, while Deadline day saw the Yankees trade for the A's Sonny Gray and the Dodgers pull off a last-minute deal with the Rangers for Yu Darvish.
The Astros? They had been engaged in talks with the Orioles about closer Zach Britton, but in the end, Houston opted to stand pat, making only a minor trade for lefty Francisco Liriano before the Deadline.
With a 16-game lead in the AL West, Luhnow may not have thought his team needed any significant additions, but one of his marquee players didn't agree with that assessment.
Dallas Keuchel, the 2015 AL Cy Young Award winner and Houston's ace, told reporters, "I'm not going to lie; disappointment is a little bit of an understatement."
Keuchel went on to say that, although he and his teammates believed in themselves, watching other contenders bolster their rosters while his team stood pat was frustrating, leaving a negative vibe inside the clubhouse.
Dallas Keuchel, pitcher: I feel like we could have upgraded, and I wanted to voice that, because of the disconnect between the front office and the players. They have a tough job as it is, and I wasn't trying to tell them how to do their job, by any means. I just wanted to let the rest of the players know that I had their back in voicing something to the front office, because there are a lot of guys in our clubhouse that didn't get along with what they did or did not do. That was the main reason for it. I felt like we did need another pitcher on the staff, in the starting rotation.
Luhnow didn't begrudge Keuchel for his comments, knowing how badly the pitcher simply wanted to win. Luhnow felt he had done what was best for the Astros at the Deadline, which at the time, meant not making a big move. The two men sat down shortly after the Deadline to discuss the situation.
Keuchel, former Astros pitcher: I had a sit-down with Jeff. I think he was kind of taken aback a little bit by what I said. But I didn't say it in a manner that meant disrespect by any means. It was just me voicing my opinion and saying, "Hey, I think we can really make a run at this. We have a good enough team already, but there's other teams making upgrades from good teams." I think I referenced, "You make a good team great and then a great team legendary." That's what we were striving for the whole time -- the first World Series championship in Astros history. It doesn't get any more special than that.
AJ Hinch, Astros manager: The emotion around the Trade Deadline has grown over my years in baseball. Now, there's an expectation that you have to do something. You need to do something. You can have the best team in baseball and something can be improved, whether it's a lefty in the 'pen, a righty in the 'pen, a bench player, a backup player, potentially a positional starter. There's great pressure on front offices nowadays to do something -- anything -- that will inspire the fans, the players, the coaches, the manager, everything. So when that [Deadline] passed in July, obviously there was a lot of Monday morning quarterbacking.
The Astros dropped three straight at home against the Rays after the Deadline, starting a slide that saw Houston go 2-9 to open August. The Astros still held a 12-game lead in the division, but they didn't resemble a team with the AL's best record.
Keuchel: I'm not saying guys came in already defeated, but [not making an impact trade] was kind of a blow to the stomach. As grown men and guys trying to win ballgames and bring a World Series title to a city, it really did hurt. It was kind of like losing your first girlfriend or something that I guess you never had. It was really a somber mood in the clubhouse. We'd hear rumblings of this and that, a different guy, but at that point, after a week and a half, it was, "Hey guys, we really have to figure this out." The starting staff, everybody had to do better. … We had to look each other in the mirror and say, "If we're not going to do anything [in terms of roster moves], we have to do this for each other." That's when we started to pick it up.
Chapter 2: Taming the Tigers
The Tigers started their rebuilding process in late July, trading J.D. Martinez and Alex Avila before the Deadline. July 31 came and went, but that didn't mean Detroit was done dealing.
Verlander, sensing what might be in the cards, approached Tigers general manager Al Avila to discuss the future. Because Verlander held 10-5 rights, he could veto any potential deal, giving him an incredible amount of control when it came to being traded.
Justin Verlander, Astros pitcher: I had told him, "Yes, obviously it would need to be the right situation." But yeah, I was willing [to accept a trade], especially once we started trading away some pieces. I think at one point I actually went to him and asked him what the plan was. I was OK with being part of the team moving forward, but I wasn't OK with being part of a complete teardown.
Verlander's willingness to only move to a contender left Avila with a limited market, one made even more limited by the desire of teams such as the Yankees and Dodgers to keep their payrolls beneath the competitive balance tax threshold in 2018. Adding Verlander's $28 million salary for that season would make that goal next to impossible.
Al Avila, Tigers general manager: The limitations of moving a player with a contract like a Justin Upton or a Justin Verlander, in today's market, it's so different. Not every team can afford that. Not so much because they can't afford the cash that they would have to actually pay, but there's the luxury-tax ramifications [which mean] that many teams -- in particular big-market teams that could afford him, financially -- can't afford him based on [the fact that] they can't go over the luxury tax now because of the new rules. … That's why this situation was kind of the perfect storm. You had the Houston Astros that right now have one of the best teams in all of baseball, with room for luxury tax for that kind of addition of that kind of contract. Obviously, it was a good fit.
Chapter 3: Storm front
Things got a little better for the Astros in mid-August as they went 8-6 over their next 14 games. But when Hurricane Harvey hit Houston while the team was in Anaheim in late August, it added a real-life distraction for the players, many of whom had family back in Houston.
Having been displaced from their home ballpark by the hurricane, the Astros played a three-game series against the Rangers at Tropicana Field in St. Petersburg. They were set to return to Houston for the first time since the storm following their day game on Aug. 31, which was also the final day teams could acquire players to be eligible for their postseason rosters.
Hinch: There was so much going on that day. We had a day game in [St. Petersburg] to start the day, and we were getting back to Houston for the first time since the hurricane. So there was a ton of emotion in the air. We knew it was the deadline, we knew we were going home. We didn't know what we were going to go see, we didn't know if we were going to do anything. We get on the plane, we land in Houston, and it was the first sight of all the flood waters. From flying in and landing at Bush International, to driving on the buses to downtown ... needless to say, it was an emotional night.
Hinch and his wife, Erin, had settled in on the back patio at their home, talking about the hurricane, the deadline and everything in between. Then the texts started to roll in.
Hinch: There's two different text exchanges that are going on. One's with me and my coaches about, of all things, college football. We're trying to just get past all of the emotion and just make it normal, talk about normal things. The second chain was with our front office, led by Jeff Luhnow. We were talking about the trades that were possible. The trade was on, the trade was off, the players that were involved; the phone calls were coming back and forth. I'm on the back patio trying to just talk about everything from controlling the damage in our neighborhood to potentially adding one of the best pitchers of our generation.
Chapter 4: Deal or no deal?
Luhnow and Avila had discussed a potential Verlander deal several times, though it appeared the two sides would not match up, much to Hinch's dismay.
Hinch: When the deadline was fast approaching, Jeff called me, and the deal was off. That was a deflating feeling that's hard to describe. Thinking that our team could have gotten so much better with one acquisition.
In an effort to make some late tweaks to the roster, the Astros had been working to acquire Cameron Maybin from the Angels, who, in Luhnow's words, didn't just want to give the outfielder away to Houston. As the day went on, something changed.
Jeff Luhnow, Astros general manager: Suddenly the Angels' attitude changed, and they were willing to essentially hand us Cameron Maybin for not very much. The reason was, we found out, they had traded for Upton, and it became clear to us and others, including potentially Justin [Verlander], that Detroit was indeed selling at that point. I think that might have increased both Detroit's appetite to go ahead, now that they let the first piece go, to start really working harder on the other pieces, and the same thing potentially for Justin in the final moments where he had to make his decision, recognizing Detroit had really turned a corner and wasn't going to go back.
Indeed, Detroit's trade of Upton to the Angels didn't just make it easier for the Astros to land Maybin, but it reopened the door for a Verlander deal, which was now gaining momentum. Until it wasn't.
Luhnow: I did get a sense after the Upton trade that Detroit was willing to work a little harder on this, as were we. We had a couple more conversations that afternoon, and there came a point where I thought the deal was dead, because, both on the money and the players, we were just too far apart. Al Avila is a pretty straight shooter; when he tells you this is what he's willing to do, I believe him. In that case, I knew what we were willing to do, and we just really weren't close together. I went about my day.
Verlander: I reached out to Al after I got wind of [the Upton] trade that morning. Kind of tried to find out what the situation was for me, personally, who they were talking to. At that point, he told me it looked highly unlikely that anything [was going] to happen. I don't know whether that conversation prompted him to reach out further, or whether just the situation made the Astros kind of pursue it even more. I don't know what happened behind the scenes, but for me personally, that was also kind of a big warning bell. It was like, "Hey, the ship's going down. Here's a life raft. Do you want to get off?" At this point in my career, I just couldn't be a part of a five-year rebuild process.
Verlander wanted to go to a contender, and he had always been intrigued by the National League. He told the Tigers he would approve a trade to four teams: the Yankees, Astros, Dodgers and Cubs -- the latter two reportedly showing interest. But with every passing minute that day, it appeared Verlander would finish out the season in Detroit.
Verlander: The Cubs and the Dodgers were the two National League teams that had shown interest. That was something that was appealing to me, to pitch in the National League. Obviously, I had been to the playoffs a bunch, and even though I knew the Astros were probably the best team in the American League, I also know that when you get to the playoffs it's a coin flip. If somebody were to say, "Hey, you're going to go win a World Series," it's a no-brainer. Easy decision. But from my perspective, there were a lot of teams that were really good. That National League thing was a bit of a draw.
Brian Cashman, Yankees general manager: We couldn't financially make it work. … It's easy when you go through that process, and it's like, ownership's not taking on that contract. OK.
That left the Astros, whose rotation had been ravaged by injuries for the past two months. The two GMs had spoken the night before, but neither believed they were close enough to think a trade would take place.
Luhnow: It was going to take something unusual for it to get started again. But it wasn't too late in the morning when we touched base again and realized that maybe we weren't as far apart as we thought we were the night before when we went to sleep. We had all day to work on it. We both made our positions very clear and whose authority we needed to get in order to get across the finish line. We were apart both in terms of players as well as money at that point. We had looked at how much we'd be willing to pay for the rest of Justin's contract and also what players we would include in the deal.
Chapter 5: The nitty gritty
Luhnow, who was in Los Angeles visiting family, was at his nephew's Little League practice in Los Angeles, waiting to talk to a group of 11-year-olds when his phone rang.
Luhnow: That's when I got a call from Al. There had been a little bit of movement on their side. I had been thinking a lot about, "OK, if they move, what am I going to do in response to that to make this thing happen?" All of a sudden, the thing was back, alive, but we were now about three hours from the deadline on the East Coast. It's still afternoon in California.
It was time to call Jim Crane, the Astros' owner.
Luhnow: I raced back up to my in-laws' place, where I was staying. Made a few phone calls on the way up there to Jim. We talked about the final concession we might want to make on the money and so forth. It was a player concession at the very end that both sides were going to make. I was going to give them the player they wanted as the final piece, but I was going to ask for a Minor League player back as a way to sort of deflect that somewhat. We were going back and forth. Now we're down to the fourth or fifth pieces of the deal, so I knew from a player perspective, we were pretty close. Jim thought about it and decided to give us the approval to go up on the money as well. I remember getting into the shower, and my phone started ringing. I got out of the shower, dripping wet, and it was Al. I told him what our final offer was, and he said he would accept it, and that that deal would be done with those players and that money. I jumped back in the shower, I was very happy, got out, got dressed, went downstairs, told my wife and my in-laws who were hanging around having a dinner party. I didn't tell them what was happening, but I said it was good news.
Chapter 6: To waive or not to waive?
The deal was done, but until Verlander agreed to waive his no-trade clause, the agreement was a theoretical one at best.
Verlander had been out to dinner near his home with his fiancé, Kate Upton, when word of a potential trade reached him.
Verlander: We had just finished dinner, and we were walking home, a pretty late dinner. I saw my phone rang and saw it was Al. My heart just kind of like sunk. I was like, "Oh boy, here we go." Sure enough, "Hey Justin, it's Al. We have a trade in place. You have to decide whether you want to accept it or not."
Uncertain that Houston was the right place for him, Verlander was leaning toward rejecting the deal.
Luhnow: I got a call from Al a few minutes later, telling me that he had spoken to Justin, that the trade was not going to go through. It wasn't the players, it wasn't the money; Justin had 5-and-10 rights, a full no-trade and the ability to nix the deal, and he wasn't necessarily comfortable at that point. That was hugely disappointing. I had already told AJ and Jim that we had the player. I had to call them both back and told them there was hitch.
With an hour left before the deadline, there was a lot that had to happen for a deal to get done. The teams pored through the medical files of all players involved, while the potential deal -- which included money -- was sent to the Commissioner's Office for approval in the event that Verlander agreed to waive his no-trade clause.
Luhnow: We proceed as if the deal's going to happen and that somehow Justin is going to change his mind. Now we never spoke to Justin up until this point, so I don't know if he really said no, or if he said, "Let me think about it." But Jim did end up reaching him and talking to him about his concerns with the organization, the city, etc.
Crane also reached out to Keuchel, asking his ace to get involved as time ticked toward the deadline.
Keuchel: I was like, "Why is he calling me at 11-something at night?" I was like, "Did I get traded?" I answered, and he said, "Well, I need your help with something." I said, "All right, what is it?" He said, "We're trying to get Verlander, and I think the deal's almost done. I want you to call him and kind of reassure him that our team is for real, and the city is going to be great; it's going to rally behind him. After the hurricane, we're all going to come together. The city itself is great, and he's going to fit right in."
Keuchel placed the call.
Keuchel: He was in a panic like I knew he was going to be. I just told him, "I don't even want to take 30 seconds out of your time, a minute out of your time; I just want you to know that your decision to come over here, you're not going to regret it. The only thing that you're missing in your career is a World Series title. I think that you want that just based on the people that I know that know you. I know myself, if I were you, that's what I would want." He said, "I appreciate it." I could hear the stress in his voice. That's all I said. I said, "I hope to see that you accepted a trade to us if it does get done." I think that was with 10 minutes left.
Luhnow: Dallas was my recommendation. Jim thought about maybe Altuve at first, and of course, Altuve is a great player, but I really thought Justin would probably get the message more clearly from a pitcher -- and especially a pitcher who is our ace and essentially would be welcoming a co-ace onto our rotation.
Keuchel had done as he was asked, but time was getting tight for Luhnow.
Luhnow: I texted Dallas with, now we're talking minutes to go, and said, "Dallas, if you're talking to Justin, get off the phone because we need to get stuff done here." He said, "I've already spoken to him, and I think things are going well. I can't say for sure, but I think he really wants to win."
Chapter 7: The decision
Verlander: It was a pretty high level of anxiety. I just went from not even thinking about it, thinking nothing's going to happen, to having to make a decision to uproot my life in half an hour. It was a pretty intense period of time there.
Keuchel had made his pitch to Verlander, who was agonizing over the decision.
Verlander: I kind of politely ushered him off the phone. I was like, "Hey man, I appreciate the call, but I've got to talk to my wife." I talked to my agent, talked to my wife. I talked to a few other people, but really, Kate's the one; she and I just kind of came to the conclusion together. I had some people say I should go; I had some people say I shouldn't. It was a lot of different things that were running through my mind -- from my living situation to my legacy in Detroit, the Astros organization and the stigma that you don't pitch more than two times through the lineup. That's something that concerned me, honestly. I didn't even address that before I got here; that was kind of the first thing I talked to AJ about. But a whole plethora of things running through my mind. The ultimate decision-making time just came down to a chance to win. It was pretty clear that the Tigers were selling everybody. This was my raft; this was my chance to get off a sinking ship. When I came down to it, I decided to go.
With a Tigers front-office employee stationed outside his building, Verlander rushed downstairs to sign off on the deal before the deadline passed.
Verlander: It was a crazy turn of events. The timing of things was so tight that my elevator in my building is pretty slow, so I didn't even take my elevator. I ran down the stairs, me and Kate, to fill out the paperwork, because it's a hard midnight deadline. There probably should be a movie about it made one day.
How close was it?
Verlander: Signing the papers at 11:59. I wasn't in charge of the clock, but I knew it was extremely tight. I think one of the MLB officials said they got the confirmation at 11:59:58, with two seconds to spare.
Luhnow: I didn't know. For 20 minutes, I didn't know if Justin had finally said yes, if we had gotten the paperwork completed, if we had gotten it all submitted and approved by the Commissioner's Office in time. I was driving down the hill to dinner and got a call from MLB around 15 minutes after the hour. I was told we had indeed gotten the deal over the finish line with literally seconds to spare -- and please don't put them through that again -- but that the deal was done. That made for a happy ending. A lot of heartache throughout the day, but at the end of the day, it was the result that we wanted.
The final deal saw Verlander go to the Astros, while the Tigers received right-hander Franklin Perez, outfielder Daz Cameron and catcher Jake Rogers -- Houston's No. 3, 9 and 11 prospects at the time. Detroit also sent $16 million to Houston to help offset the $56 million owed to the right-hander in 2018-19.
Luhnow: I do remember the comment that Al Avila made to me as we finished the deal. He said, "Justin's going to help you win a World Series this year." I thought, "Boy, of course he's saying that because he's telling me what a great deal I got," but I thought, "Boy, if that's the case, no matter what we gave up, no matter how much we're paying, it will be worth it, because it'll be Houston's first championship."
Avila: Because it was not a mandate to dump salary, we got a good trade in return. Because we were prepared to keep Justin Verlander for the remainder of his contract. When you have that alternative, you can stand pat and say, "This is what we want."
Cashman: Obviously, they were willing to step up. I didn't have any reaction to it. Somebody who wants to play in those deep waters, it's a risk that they took, and it paid off for them.
Chapter 8: After midnight
Cameron, one of the top prospects in the deal, was out with some friends eating wings at a restaurant when his phone rang.
Daz Cameron, Tigers outfielder: I got a call from my dad who was watching ESPN. He was like, "Hey man, you might get traded. It might go down." I was like, "Wait, no way." I turned, and ESPN was right there, so I looked, and it was like Justin Verlander and prospects' names. … Then it said my name, and he said, "You got traded, man." I was like, "What?" It was crazy. It was pretty surreal, man.
What was it like to learn he had been traded in that fashion?
Cameron: I'm looking at the TV like, "No way this is going on while I'm eating wings here at his place." It's pretty cool, man. It's a moment I'll never forget. It's one of those things you take it all in. It's a blessing, man.
Keuchel: Our group chat just started blowing up. It was like a new day the next day. It was like we had just found the fountain of youth for our team.
Hinch: The deadline passes, my phone rings again, and Jeff said, minutes prior to the deadline, things were back on. They agreed to another player who was added to the deal. The money had to be approved by MLB and both ownership groups. And Justin Verlander was [on the Astros]. At that point, I didn't know what to think. Was I going to pass out? Was I going to freak out? I was trying to send texts to my coaches to let them know that we had acquired Verlander. The next text I get is from Jeff, with Justin Verlander's phone number. What I knew at that point, I wasn't going to bed anytime soon.
Hinch spoke with Verlander that night, capping a wild four-hour stretch.
Hinch: So many twists and turns during that night, where you've got our leadership group is all over the place, from Jim to Jeff to me, to pulling off what turned out to be one of the biggest moves in franchise history, literally at the 11th hour, as the saying goes. It's a night I'll never forget.
Chapter 9: Welcome aboard
Having pitched the previous night for the Tigers, it was decided that Verlander's Astros debut would come on Sept. 5, giving him five regular-season starts to get acclimated to his new surroundings before the postseason.
Hinch: When I walked into the room in September, you walk into the clubhouse and you look at the jerseys all the time. It's something that I do routinely, just to make sure I continue to appreciate walking into a Major League clubhouse. The jerseys are hung, you see the names. … There was a new one -- it was Verlander, No. 35. That feeling, it just lifts your spirit; it lifts the possibilities of what can be. Whatever adrenaline boost you need going into the final month of a long, grueling season, you've got it right there with one jersey being hung up. He brought credibility, he brought a togetherness within an organization that the front office is on board with the clubhouse, the clubhouse is back on board with the front office. The anticipation of what's possible can all be summed up by looking at a jersey hung in a locker.
The Astros had gone 11-17 in August, but in Hinch's eyes, Verlander's arrival had changed everything for the team and its fans in a city devastated by the hurricane.
Hinch: Everybody was talking about Justin Verlander's trade, and what that meant for the Astros and what that meant for the city. I think it all surrounded hope, it all surrounded a recovery. A recovery from a bad August for us, a recovery for a bad storm in Houston. They always say sports teams can be therapy for people or can be an outreach for people or a release for people. You have some of the craziest fandom experiences when people are mad, they're happy, they're sad. That day, it was about hope, and it was about what was possible for the rest of the year for the Astros, but also for the rest of the year for the city of Houston.
Chapter 10: The big payoff
Verlander went 5-0 with a 1.06 ERA in those five regular-season starts, helping the Astros to a 20-8 record in the final month to give them momentum heading into October.
Hinch: We talk about what a player's addition does for a team; we don't often talk about what a team does for a player. Him coming to this environment, coming off of a successful run in Detroit, [which was] clearly was starting with the rebuild, all that means [something] to a player of Verlander's magnitude. What we could do for him is give him that energy that's needed to put in the work, to get better in areas, to maximize his performance. He jumped both feet in with [Astros pitching coach] Brent Strom and our analytical team and what we felt like he could do to get better. How do we incorporate the changeup? How do we tweak his slider a little bit? Where he pitches certain hitters. It was a match that was perfectly made in heaven. He got the boost of being in a pennant race, which will energize anybody, especially someone with his ability. The team had the opportunity to jump both feet in with a player who can apply exactly all of these subtle adjustments and literally do it the next start.
Verlander won both of his starts against the Red Sox in the AL Division Series, then won AL Championship Series MVP honors with 16 innings of one-run ball in two wins over the Yankees. Did Cashman have any sense of non-buyer's remorse after watching Verlander dominate his club with a trip to the World Series on the line?
Cashman: It never crosses my mind because it wasn't something that was attainable. You don't play those mind games. … Because it wasn't an option, it might as well have been an official no-trade to us. It just wasn't a choice.
Verlander didn't win either of his World Series games despite posting quality starts in each outing, but in the end, the Astros emerged victorious in Game 7 against the Dodgers, winning the first championship in franchise history.
Verlander: I can't even put it into words. It was just an unbelievable ride, from the questioning everything to getting here and the way that the team embraced me, to pitching so well down the stretch and helping this organization win its first World Series. All of it was very storybook. I don't take any of that for granted. I appreciate every moment of it. I look back at it so very fondly.
As he recounted his sit-down with Keuchel two Augusts ago, Luhnow reflected on the events that led to one of the most important and influential transactions in Astros history.
Luhnow: Dallas is never one that's shy to speak his mind. He wants to win, he wants to be great, and I thought his comments were appropriate about good teams can be great and great teams can be legendary. I do think with the acquisition of Verlander, whatever you want to say, we took it from good to great or great to legendary, we certainly took it up a big notch. It turned out to be the right move for our team. There were a lot of starting pitchers that were available in July. Yu Darvish, Sonny Gray and others that did end up getting traded; we were involved to different levels in those deals. There were relievers that got traded and didn't get traded that we were involved in. But at the end of the day, with Justin Verlander pitching as well as he was at the end of August, and the Astros really needing another starting pitcher in the rotation, it ended up being a perfect match for us.
Mark Feinsand, executive reporter for MLB.com, has covered the Yankees and MLB since 2001 for the New York Daily News and MLB.com.