The Astros, losers of six of their last seven games, need all the help they can get right now. 2020 has been a struggle for the reigning AL pennant winners (not that anyone is feeling too sorry for the Astros these days), but Wednesday brought a rare bit of good news on the injury front with Justin Verlander reportedly on the mend.
Last year’s AL Cy Young winner hasn’t toed the rubber for Houston since suffering a strained forearm on Opening Day, though according to Brian McTaggart of MLB.com, Verlander hopes to resume throwing next week. That would put Verlander, whose season once appeared to be in jeopardy, on track to return at some point during the 2020 campaign.
Rotation depth was once among the Astros’ greatest strengths (only Dodgers and Nationals starters posted lower ERAs in 2019), but with Verlander banged up and free-agent defector Gerrit Cole now starring for the rival Yankees, that is no longer the case. The ERA of Houston’s starting staff sans Verlander and Cole has plummeted to a pedestrian 4.41, nearly a run higher than last year’s 3.61. Houston’s offense hasn’t fared much better with All-Stars Jose Altuve (.187) and George Springer (.182) both hitting below the Mendoza line.
Despite his age—the right-hander turned 37 in February—Verlander is coming off one of his best seasons. The veteran workhorse paced the majors with 21 wins while setting a career-high in punch-outs, finishing with an even 300 as the ‘Stros cruised to a franchise-record 107 victories in 2019. Verlander weathered some lean years late in his Tigers tenure, but the trade to Houston seems to have enlivened him. The future Hall of Famer has registered a masterful 2.45 ERA in 74 starts since coming over from the Motor City in 2017.
Playing with a clear target on their back following a wave of cheating allegations that ultimately proved true, the Astros have looked rattled in the early going, limping to an ugly 7-10 start. That’s their worst 17-game mark since 2016, which, coincidentally, was also the last time Houston missed the postseason. The Astros have the advantage of an expanded 16-team postseason to cushion their early struggles, though with only 60 games on the 2020 slate, recovering from a sluggish start will be harder than in years past. Having a perennial Cy Young candidate back at the top of the rotation won’t fix all that ails the Astros, but it would be a start.