BOSTON — The Hot Stove League can’t begin soon enough for most New York baseball fans, and that explains why the most intriguing person of this American League Championship Series might very well be a guy who isn’t even here.
Unless the concept of Justin Verlander pitching for the Yankees or Mets doesn’t entice you?
Verlander, the two-time Cy Young Award winner and as certain a Hall of Famer as any active player not named Albert Pujols, is on the 2021 Astros’ payroll yet not on their roster, not in the second calendar year of rehabilitation from the Sept. 30, 2020 Tommy John surgery on his right elbow. He finds himself in the unusual, if not unique, scenario of spending his entire walk year on the injured list.
Where he finds himself over the winter, that for sure will fascinate, notwithstanding his recent absence from the game. Partly because of that absence, actually.
Astros owner Jim Crane recently told Houston media members that his team “probably” will extend the $18.4-million qualifying offer to Verlander, who will turn 39 next February and made one start last season, a July 24 victory over the Mariners, before shutting it down and eventually requiring the reconstructive procedure. That could be game, set, match for this process, as Verlander, who has spoken of wanting to pitch until he’s 45, could accept the sweet one-year payday and bet on himself to put together another stellar season and launch himself back onto a more favorable market.
Or the Astros, for whom Verlander won his one World Series ring in 2017 as well as his second Cy Young, in 2019 (his first came with the Tigers in 2011), could opt against tendering the qualifying offer. Or Verlander, who has never been a free agent, could gamble that, given the success rate of returning TJ surgery recipients, his all-time greatness and his strong brand identity, enough suitors would be willing to sacrifice a draft pick and the requisite dollars to land him.
He’s worth discussing, worth spitballing his next turn, because of his potential to be a transformative addition to a pitching staff, be it pairing up with his old Astros teammate Gerrit Cole on the Yankees or with Jacob deGrom on the Mets. Verlander, who is married to model and actress Kate Upton, expressed a desire to be traded from the Tigers to the Yankees in August 2017, only for the Yankees to pass due to budgetary concerns (head-slap emoji), which led to him becoming an Astro and a champion.
Speaking of those ’17 ’Stros, Verlander, as a pitcher rather than a hitter on that club, would get more forgiveness in the Big Apple (and The Bronx in particular) than Houston’s other huge-name free agent, shortstop Carlos Correa. On the flip side, the Yankees saw how Cole, who improved significantly when getting dealt from the Pirates to the Astros and then slipped when Major League Baseball began enforcing against sticky stuff, can look at how Verlander improved significantly upon getting dealt from the Tigers to the Astros and … you get the idea.
Interestingly, Astros general manager James Click said on Monday, before the Astros and Red Sox faced off in ALCS Game 3 at Fenway Park, that Verlander, who has rehabbed in Florida with COVID protocols keeping him away from the club, expressed interest in pitching right now.
“He actually asked his doctors if it would be possible for him to come back in the playoffs. He said, ‘Is this something I could do?’ ” Click said. “And the doc said, ‘Yes, you could. It would be incredibly stupid.’
“So they basically told him for his long-term prognosis, long-term health, coming back in a high-intensity environment like the playoffs, in a role in which he has never pitched [relief], not knowing how to warm up … they were like, ‘It’s not a good idea.’ I think it says a lot about him as a competitor and a teammate that he was the one who initiated that conversation.”
It does. Verlander is a fascinating figure, a 2021 ghost preparing to re-emerge. The quicker this non-New York postseason wraps up, the sooner we’ll learn of his fate.