It’s time to go get Verlander

I very rarely ever do this publicly. I like to think of myself as a dispassionate analyst of the game, but at my core I am a fan first. So, when the Astros didn’t make a deal at the deadline (okay, fine, they got a lefty with an ERA around 6.00) I was pretty disappointed. In fact, I waited over a week to comment on this outside of the Astros fan bubble. It’s easy to become AM sports talk radio caller guy and start calling for manager, general managers, and owners to be fired. I may not have gone that far on August 1st, but there might have been a few colorful metaphors that got thrown around.


Back in 1998, Gerry Hunsicker threw caution to the wind and acquired Randy Johnson at the deadline for a package that included Carlos Guillen, Freddy Garcia, and John Halama. Guillen would go onto play fourteen seasons (13 after 1998) and had 27.7 bWAR. Garcia pitched for 15 seasons and had 35.7 bWAR. Halama had only 5.7 bWAR, but lasted nearly ten seasons. It’s hard to imagine Johnson doing any better than he did in Houston. He finished the last two months 10-1 with a 1.28 ERA. He pitched to a 1.93 ERA over 14 innings in the NLDS that season. The only problem was that Kevin Brown was better. These things happen.


Ask just about any Astros fan if they would make that deal again and they would say yes in a heartbeat. For one thing, that club was the best club in franchise history and given the recent struggles of the current bunch you would have to believe that will still be the case following 2017. However, that’s not the only thing. The move galvanized the community if even only for two months and made people believe they had a real shot. Based on his performance we did. You can’t always predict these things, but the move gave Houston a puncher’s chance.


Let’s play a little game. It is what I would like to call the Player A and Player B game. One of them will be Randy Johnson circa 1998 (pre-trade) and the other will be Justin Verlander through the end of July this season. I think you might be surprised at the similarities between the two.


Age Wins Losses INN ERA SO BB HR
Pitcher A 34 9 10 160.0 4.33 213 60 19
Pitcher B 34 6 7 130.0 4.29 126 60 15


Okay, the first player had more innings and more strikeouts per inning. Heck, he ended up with over 300 strikeouts during that season. It’s been a long time since those days, but otherwise the numbers are pretty comparable. The difference is that pitcher A went 10-1 the rest of the way and then pitched another ten seasons. Most of those were on an extremely high level. Four of his five Cy Young awards came after that season. He ended up winning over 300 games and accumulating nearly 5000 strikeouts. Some might vote for him as the best lefty in the history of the game. They would be wrong, but it’s not a completely ridiculous suggestion.


The problem with making the Johnson comparison is that we are biased based on what happened after the deal. We are biased on the positive end based on how good he pitched in Houston and afterwards. We are biased on the negative end based on what happened in the playoffs that season and what those three did in their careers. None of those things were known at the time. Guillen was a promising shortstop that never seemed to stay healthy. Garcia was a good-looking prospect, but no one could predict him winning 150+ games. Halama became what everyone predicted. He was a marginal pitcher that likely didn’t have a future in Houston.


So, that brings us to Verlander. He is the same age Johnson was that season. Does he have ten more seasons in him? That’s not likely. Does he have five seasons left in him? That might be more realistic, but it would still be wishful thinking. Heck, the Astros would take two more seasons at the current level he has pitched at in 2016 and 2017. However, just like in the case of Johnson there are no guarantees.


The elephant in the room is the difference between the contracts. Johnson had only two months left and then went home to pitch in Arizona. Drayton McLane made a valiant effort to sign him, but it wasn’t going to happen. Verlander has two more seasons at 28 million a piece and an option for a third if he rediscovers his former brilliant self. That is obviously a possible stumbling block for a team that has Jose Altuve, Carlos Correa, and George Springer destined to get huge money in the next few years. All of that could potentially happen after Verlander’s deal expires, but accelerating their capital outlay might prevent them from signing all three or even just two.


So, would the Tigers take on some of that salary in exchange for a better prospect package? Would that prospect package end up hurting the future too much? Those things are hard to say. Would Verlander continue to pitch like he has the last few weeks in Houston? That is also impossible to answer. Since July 1st, he is 3-3 with 50.1 innings in 8 starts. More importantly, he has a 3.04 ERA in that span. That might not be good enough to beat guys like Chris Sale and Corey Kluber, but it would be good enough to give them a fighting shot.


While his recent past is important, the 7-5 record with a 3.39 ERA in the postseason might be the tipping point. Heck, take away one bad outing in the World Series and that becomes that much more dominating. The Astros can’t force the Tigers to give him up or accept the group of prospects they would feel comfortable giving up. They can’t force the Tigers to take on the kind of money that would make them feel comfortable. That’s where AM Sports Radio call in guy comes into play. We all laugh at the Tony Sipp, Preston Tucker, and Tyler White for Verlander offers they conjure up. Any deal for anyone like Verlander is going to hurt. The deal for the Big Unit definitely hurt then and hurt three years later when those three helped the Mariners win 116 regular season games. Holding on to prospects and sitting at home following the ALDS will also hurt. That is especially true if bad pitching is the reason why it happens.

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