The Houston Astros are fresh off winning the 2022 World Series against the Philadelphia Phillies, and have been rightfully basking in their own glory for much of the offseason. But soon enough, the 2023 season will be underway, and the Astros will begin their quest to win their second straight championship.
Doing so is always going to be easier said than done, but if there’s any team that can accomplish that, it would be the Astros. They have made it to the ALCS in six straight seasons, and even amid the fallout from their sign-stealing scandal, they have continued to win at an extremely high rate. And that appears set to continue in 2023.
Houston hasn’t been stagnant this offseason just because they won the World Series last season, and they have made some of the best moves of the offseason along the way. But they also took a huge risk by not signing one player in particular, so let’s identify who that player is and see why this will go down as the riskiest move of the offseason for the Astros.
Astros riskiest offseason move: Letting Justin Verlander leave in free agency
While the Astros dynastic run as of late has often been associated with explosive offenses, the 2022 campaign was a different story. Houston still had a strong lineup, but they managed to win it all primarily on the strength of their pitching staff. From the first guy in their starting rotation to the last guy in their bullpen, there wasn’t a stronger pitching staff in the MLB than in Houston.
The first guy in their rotation happened to be Justin Verlander, who won the third Cy Young award of his career as a result of his strong season. After missing almost all of the past two seasons, Verlander returned last season and was unbelievable for the Astros. His stats on the season (18-4, 1.75 ERA, 185 K, 0.83 WHIP) may have made the 2022 season the best year of his storied career.
Even though he will turn 40 in February, Verlander set himself up for quite a massive payday this offseason as he hit free agency. Sure, players will inevitably hit a wall as they age, but Verlander showed no signs of hitting that wall in 2022. Verlander was arguably the best pitcher in all of baseball, with only Sandy Alcantara really providing him competition.
For that reason, it was surprising to see the Astros be rather indifferent when it came to pursuing Verlander in free agency. They still have a strong starting rotation without him (they made it to the World Series in 2021 without him after all) but their ceiling is lowered without him leading the way.
That’s something Houston will have to deal with immediately in 2023, because Verlander ended up signing a two-year, $86 million contract with the New York Mets, putting an end to his dominant six season stint with the ‘Stros. And now, the Astros will have to figure out how to overcome his loss.
This decision is risky because, well, Verlander was awesome last season. Sure, he’s going to be 40 years old, and there’s a chance the Mets will get burned by this deal if he does regress over the next two seasons. But considering how Verlander literally just posted a 1.75 ERA, the best of his career, he would have to regress pretty dramatically in a short amount of time for this deal to not benefit the Mets.
The $86 million price tag over two years is extremely high, so in a sense, you can justify not paying Verlander here, but if the Astros truly wanted to keep their championship window open, they would have shelled out that money without blinking. That’s not to say they aren’t intent on maximizing that window, or that they aren’t in a position to maximize that window, but it becomes a lot harder to do so.
As previously mentioned, the Astros have a strong core group of starters, led by Framber Valdez, Cristian Javier, and Luis Garcia, as well as their dominant bullpen from last season, so they are in a good position to overcome this loss. Their lineup may need to do a bit more for them, but they shored up their biggest hole at first base by signing Jose Abreu.
But Houston’s inability to re-sign Verlander is a huge risk for them, whether or not it was their intended game plan. Verlander is still at the top of his game, and not only do the Astros not have him, but another World Series contender in the Mets do now. And while he could regress, he doesn’t seem likely to do so anytime soon, and it wouldn’t be surprising to see Verlander make New York regret their decision here by putting together another dominant 2023 campaign.