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MLB trade rumor grade: Justin Verlander to the Astros?

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The most obvious deal that hasn’t been completed is still on the table. Is it a good rumor, though?

Detroit Tigers v Baltimore Orioles Photo by Patrick McDermott/Getty Images

You thought you were done with MLB trade rumor grades? Oh, my friend, there can be trades in August. There always are. And this one is a doozy: Justin Verlander, former MVP, is tempting the first-place Houston Astros, who are slugging over .500 as a team. They could use another starting pitcher, you know.

It’s not fair to look at the Astros’ record since the trade deadline and make any sort of point. It’s not just unfair, but it’s also incompetent, brainless, and rude. The Astros didn’t make a big trade at the deadline, the Astros are 2-4 since then, and I need new tires for my car. Those three facts correlate with each other roughly the same.

At the same time, the players don’t have to know that. They’re not in the business of correlations and causations and such. They play sportsball. And when they’re expecting reinforcements and reinforcements don’t come, and then they start losing some games, well, this starts to get in their heads, I would imagine:

The fans feel it, too. Picture a group of concerned fans moving the transaction-doomsday clock closer to midnight.

Artist’s conception

They don’t give trophies for the best record in the American League, and the hands are closer together than they’ve been all year. The Astros didn’t do anything, they haven’t played like the Astros for most of the last week, and now there are rumors they’re interested in Justin Verlander, who had one of his best outings of the year on Friday.

It was the 24th straight appearance in which Verlander didn’t pitch into the eighth inning, though. He’s not the same pitcher you’re thinking of. His walk rate is up. His ERA is over 4.00, and his FIP suggests that’s where it should be. He’s 34 and owed $28 million per season for the next two years.

On the other hand, here’s Verlander in the final two months of the season over the last two years:

2015: 83 IP, 78 K, 20 BB, .566 OPS allowed, 2.48 ERA
2016: 80 IP, 99 K, 17 BB, .602 OPS allowed, 2.13 ERA

It’s not a trend unless you want it to be, but it’s hard not to be a little curious after his last dominant start. Maybe last-third Verlander really is a thing, and the Astros should ride that wave now, and worry about his 2018 and 2019 salaries later.

It’s complicated. Let’s talk this out.

The argument for the Astros trading for Justin Verlander

The Astros have four of the best hitters in baseball, according to OPS+. They support those hitters with a bunch of contributors having fine season, and they’re incapable of screwing up their momentum. Jake Marisnick? He can hit now. Derek Fisher? Bring him up, he can it. Tyler White? Juan Centeno? Sure, whatever, they can hit now, even if it’s over a dozen at-bats.

But in the postseason, they’ll face something like this:

Chris Sale
David Price
Drew Pomeranz

or ...

Corey Kluber
Carlos Carrasco
Danny Salazar

or ...

Luis Severino
Sonny Gray
C.C. Sabathia

or ...

Dylan Bundy
Kevin Gausman
Wade Miley?

Dammit, Orioles, why are you still ... anyway, even when you get to some of the stragglers in the second wild card, they usually follow a pattern of having at least two solid-to-fantastic starters, though the third one can be a little bit less intimidating.

The Astros can counter with Dallas Keuchel, Charlie Morton, and Lance McCullers. Maybe Brad Peacock or Mike Fiers slot in somewhere. That’s not bad. That’s not panic time. Move the hands on the clock back, please.

But it’s not as intimidating as some of the other postseason rotations, and that’s before you acknowledge that the front three have lost time to injuries this year. It might be prudent to anticipate a scenario in which one or two pitchers don’t pitch as much in October.

The strength of the pitching (and the extra rest for the super relievers) will help neutralize the Astros’ lineup somewhat. Just because they’re approaching a .900 OPS as a team doesn’t mean that they’ll hit that well against Chris Sale. They’ll want some parity on the pitching side, too.

Verlander was a deserving Cy Young candidate last year. He’s the last one left. The Astros missed out on Yu Darvish, and they’re not going to do themselves any favors by futzing around with the second tier for pitchers like Jeff Samardzija. That’s the kind of move a team would make if it needed to hold onto a two-game lead. The Astros need the kind of move that would give them a chance to win in the postseason even if their lineup was swapped out with the Padres’. Verlander is the last chance for that.

The argument against the Astros trading for Justin Verlander

He might not be that pitcher anymore. We’ve been through so many false starts and stops and twists and turns with Verlander in recent years that it’s hard to know what’s legitimate cause for concern and what isn’t. The spiking walk rate is worrisome, but it doesn’t have to be proof of anything. The ERA is higher than anyone would like, but that’s probably putting too much emphasis on three blow-up starts. Verlander has thrown a quality start in 18 of his 23 outings, which is mighty consistent.

But the Astros don’t necessarily need to gamble future budgets away for someone who can get them a bunch of quality starts, though. They already have quality starts. And if they don’t, they have a bullpen that can shorten the game, especially with scheduled rest in the postseason.

They need a starter who can match up with the other team’s top two pitchers just in case their lineup is getting bested, a complement to Keuchel at his best. Verlander might be that guy. Or he might be a rich man’s Samardzija at this stage of his career — good for keeping his team in the game and giving them a chance to win, but not necessarily dominating or putting said team on his back anymore.

I would throw caution to the wind and gamble that Verlander is that pitcher again ... except for the age and the $28 million he’s owed for each of the next two seasons. If the Tigers start eating money, they’re going to demand better and better prospects. While the Astros have built a young team and can certainly follow the Cubs down the path of, “Screw it, we’re young, we can burn prospects,” that doesn’t mean they want to. Not for a 34-year-old pitcher who isn’t having his standard, dominant season.

It would be a risk for the Astros, alright. I can understand the reticence.

Conclusion: Go for it, you weenies

What I keep coming back to is this:

Astros guaranteed payroll
2018: $56.7 million
2019: $23.9 million

They can afford Verlander. They can afford a couple of them. They’ve put themselves in such an amazing position with their player development, that they can risk a dud in the lineup or in the rotation. And if he actually pitches as well as he did year at this time? He’s the missing piece the Astros have needed since the offseason.

There are complications. Verlander can veto a trade. There’s the whole money thing to work out. The Tigers might ask for a giving-up-a-franchise-icon prospect premium that the Astros aren’t willing to pay. But assuming a trade is possible, this is the best chance for a super team to get the final addition they’ve needed for a while. This rumor gets an A because it’s so dang obvious, and the only surprise is that a deal wasn’t struck before July 31.