Just because the non-waiver trade deadline has come and gone, that doesn't mean we have to wait for winter. Yes, Virginia, there are still trades in August. While these sorts of trades are usually not all that exciting, sometimes you end up with something along the lines of the Nick Punto mega-deal. And things are lined up for a little August excitement, since Justin Verlander has cleared revocable waivers and is available to any team willing to make a deal.
One of the names that has been bandied about as a potential partner for quite a while has been Houston and, according to Jon Morosi, discussions between the Tigers and Astros are ongoing. Sure, Bob Nightengale says Verlander is stuck in Detroit until they're neck-deep in snow, but if you believe everything you read on Twitter, I have some magic beans available for a somewhat reasonable price. There's a pretty good chance we're just witnessing some posturing and there's still plenty of August left to get a deal done if the Astros want to add one Verlander to their rotation. The question is whether they should or not.
First of all, an obvious point: The Astros don't really need any help from Verlander to make it to the postseason. They sit 30-odd games over .500, the best in the American League, with Boston in second place behind them. Baseball Prospectus and Fangraphs both give them a 100% chance to win their division. The thought exercise here is about what happens when they get to the playoffs, since getting there is pretty much assured.
Astros position players are 1st in MLB in so many categories, it's a tad ridiculous: wRC+ (130), fWAR (26.2), every component stat of the slashline (.291/.355/.503), K% (17.3) and ISO (.211), to name a heaping handful. They clearly have the best offense in baseball. The Astros don't have any black holes in their lineup and, while they've been getting some surprising production from the likes of the underappreciated Marwin Gonzalez, Jake Marisnick and others, there's clearly no real need to improve on the offensive side of the ball. If it ain't broke and all that.
The pitching side, however, has been a little more iffy. The Astros were clearly in the market for various starters before the trade deadline, including Sonny Gray and Jaime Garcia as well as Verlander, but nothing happened. They also attempted to level-up their bullpen by adding Zach Britton, but that deal apparently fell apart at the last minute thanks to the Orioles' notoriously stringent medical standards.
In the end, Houston came away with one Francisco Liriano, who they will likely be using as a southpaw specialist out of the bullpen. While Liriano's has held fellow lefties to a .254/.288/.381 slashline, his overall numbers (6.02 ERA, 4.74 FIP) don't look particularly great and it was a bit disappointing for Houston to potentially end up with only a LOOGY to show for their trade deadline efforts.
And Houston certainly had reasons to be shopping at the starting pitcher store. Lance McCullers, who was the Astros' best pitcher for the first part of the season hit the DL in June and, since he came back on June 24, is sporting a 7.45 ERA and hasn't made it out of the 5th inning. Then there's the fact he hit the 10-day DL again on said trade deadline date of July 31. Dallas Keuchel, who has only pitched 87 innings and is fresh off of a four-inning, eight-run loss last night to the White Sox, has a 10.50 ERA in three starts and is 0-2 since the All Star Break. Small sample size? Yes. Reason to worry, especially with all the missed time to injury this season? Possibly.
Brad Peacock (3.27 ERA, 2.96 FIP, 11.89 K/9 and 1.7 fWAR over in the 61.1 innings in the rotation) and Charlie Morton (3.78 ERA, 3.87 FIP, 9.82 K/9, 1.7 fWAR over 95.1 innings) are both having the best years of their careers, but neither have a proven track record of success, whether in the regular or postseason. Do you trust either of them in an elimination game in October? What if Keuchel and McCullers don't bounce back? Houston's lineup has been the best in baseball, but the best lineup has still lost 36.6% of their games.
So, there's certainly a perceptible need here, but would Verlander actually fulfill that need? At 34 years old, he's currently having one of the worst seasons of his career, with plenty of causes for concern. His 4.20 ERA and 4.12 FIP are a far cry from the Verlanderenaissance of 2016 (3.04 ERA, 3.48 FIP) and that's the worst FIP he's put up since 2008. The strikeouts are down (8.93 K/9) and the walks are up (3.94 BB/9). All that being said, he's still managed to throw quality starts in 18 of his 23 games this year, which is still pretty valuable. His 2.2 fWAR over 137 innings on the year isn't impressive, but there's value in durability, even without the ceiling that Verlander has.
We also have to throw the fact that his last four starts have shown marked improvement into the mix. Since July 19, he's got an 2.33 ERA and has held opposing hitters to a .218/.259/.366 line. That's something every team wants in their rotation come October, early season stats be damned. Perhaps the Astros want to buy into the narrative that Verlander just gets better as the season wanes, as he does have a 3.10 ERA/3.48 FIP in September and October versus a 3.34 ERA/3.67 FIP for his career.
The clincher is that Verlander is also owed about $8 million for the rest of 2017 and then $28 million a pop for the next two seasons. That's a lot of millions and the main reason that Verlander wasn't moved before August reared its waivery head. There were plenty of teams in need of starting pitching, but not at that price and not with Verlander's age and not with the up-and-down year he's been having.
Returning to the issue of Houston's perceived need, we have to mention that there's another issue going on here. The clubhouse, or at least Keuchel, is upset about the limited moves (see: just the Liriano trade) that management made at the non-waiver deadline. The resultant rebelliousness isn't a good reason to go out and spend a heaping helping of money, but Houston can probably afford to spend a bit.
Thanks to their impressively effective young and (thus) remarkably affordable core, they have one of the lowest payrolls in MLB and plenty of room to fool around with salaries. They are currently a bottom-ten team in committed salaries for 2018 and 2019, after which Verlander would be off the books. Add in the fact that they play in one of the largest media markets, and you have a recipe for a team who could afford to eat some money in the interest of a deeper postseason run and still have enough leftover to get in on the (correctly) much-hyped 2018-2019 free agent class. If it's just a matter of Houston taking on Verlander's salary and throwing in some lottery tickets, then there's little argument to be made against it.
Of course, if Detroit isn't interested in eating any more than Verlander's remaining 2017 salary, they aren't going to pry much in the way of top prospects back from any team. Verlander is owed too much money and has plenty of question marks. That raises issues as to whether Detroit GM Al Avila would even be willing to make a deal for a fan favorite and franchise cornerstone without getting a notable return. So, it seems that maybe Avila needs to move a little bit on the salary issue and eat a bit more so he can bring back something better in the prospect department.
Aside: There's also the issue of Verlander's full no-trade clause. While I grew up in Houston and love it very much, I could see how someone who hasn't spent much time there might take a hard pass on a summer of 100 degree weather, 100% humidity and level 100 cockroaches. That being said, it stands to reason that at least a part of him would be willing to get down with some roaches for a chance to finally take home a ring with the Astros, as it's probably a little more likely there than Detroit over the next few postseasons.
Verlander isn't the world beater that he was in his prime, yes, but he's also still a clearly above average pitcher with a proven track record and an (albeit iffy as hell) ability to pitch better later in the year. There's plenty of risk involved in acquiring Verlander for Houston, but they aren't losing anything right now by taking on salary, so that should be a non-starter. If it's just money we're talking about, Houston should go for it. If we're talking about Detroit eating just enough salary to get a highly ranked pitching prospect who's still years aways from the bigs (say, J.B. Bukauskas), then the Astros should still do it.
It's unlikely, however, that Avila is snagging a truly top-tier prospect without swallowing substantial salary, and he's going to be back in this same spot with less leverage during the offseason. Barring getting fleeced by Detroit, Houston should grab the best pitcher still available and give their lineup a little bit of help for the inevitable postseason.