Risk-It-All Justin Verlander Trade Gives Astros Best WS Hope in 56-Year History

Scott Miller@@ScottMillerBblNational MLB ColumnistSeptember 1, 2017

Aug 9, 2017; Detroit, MI, USA; Detroit Tigers starting pitcher Justin Verlander (35) waves to the crowd as he walks off the field after the eighth inning against the Pittsburgh Pirates at Comerica Park. Mandatory Credit: Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports
Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

That wasn't an eclipse on this hot August night; it was a meteor streaking across the sky. Straight from Michigan to Texas.

Justin Verlander is galloping back into a pennant race.

The Houston Astros are charging toward a patch of big league real estate they have never before occupied.

No guarantees they get there, not even with Kate Upton's boy toy, but make no mistake: This isn't a luxury move for the Astros. This was a necessity.

At 80-53, they own the best record in the American League and the third-best record in the majors, behind the otherworldly Los Angeles Dodgers (91-41) and potent Washington Nationals (81-52). They long ago punched their playoff ticket, but it's not enough. Not this year.

A dead-solid perfect chance to win a World Series doesn't come along often. When it does, you've got to seize it. The Houston Astros have been open for business for 56 years, and they've played in exactly one World Series, back in 2005, when the Chicago White Sox whitewashed them.

From Nolan Ryan to Craig Biggio to Jeff Bagwell, Hall of Famers and other assorted great players have punched in for work, punched out for the season and never come close to winning a World Series.

By adding Verlander to a mix that includes Dallas Keuchel and Lance McCullers Jr. on the mound, Jose Altuve, Carlos Correa, Yuli Gurriel and Alex Bregman in the field and the steady A.J. Hinch in the manager's chair, these Astros have covered every angle they could to give this group the best chance in franchise history to win a World Series.

What they have also done is what many in the industry said they wouldn’t.

Oh, the Astros are too in love with their own prospects to trade them for a player like Verlander, said some. Shoot, said others, they're too cheap to pick up a rich contract like Verlander's.

We've been down that road before with the Astros, and it was only recently when they failed to step up at the July non-waiver trade deadline. Sure, they added lefty Francisco Liriano to their bullpen, but...yawn.

Don't take it from me, though. Take it from the Astros themselves.

They were not a happy bunch when their reward for playing their guts out during the first four months of the season was a pat on the back from the front office and a simple "Hey, guys, we tried to make some trades and help you but those dadgum things aren't easy to do, you know."

Keuchel responded as such, via Brian McTaggart of MLB.com: "I'm not going to lie, disappointment is a little bit of an understatement. I feel like a bunch of teams really bolstered their rosters for the long haul and for a huge playoff push, and us just kind of standing pat was really disappointing."

Then there was veteran outfielder Josh Reddick, whose review of general manager Jeff Luhnow's finest sloth imitation in July included an explanation of how it left the Astros "down in the dumps," per MLB Network Radio:

Exit Dumpsville. Next stop: October.

Credit Luhnow and owner Jim Crane for recognizing the moment and for correcting their earlier malfeasance. They now owe Verlander $56 million over the next two seasons, though the Detroit Tigers will pick up about $16 million of that, according to USA Today's Bob Nightengale.

It cost the Astros in prospects too; right-hander Franklin Perez, center fielder Daz Cameron and catcher Jake Rogers are headed to the Tigers. Perez, 19, was ranked by Baseball America as the No. 2 prospect in Houston's system. Cameron, 20, the son of former big league outfielder Mike Cameron, was rated as Houston's ninth-best prospect by MLB Pipeline, and Rogers, 22, was ranked as the No. 11 prospect in the club's system by MLB Pipeline.

The ceiling is high for each of those three, and good for the Tigers for holding out for young talent and not just dumping money. But Houston is loaded with prospects. And there are times when they can be overvalued. Houston has done a beautiful job of growing its system, but an organization that passes on making aggressive moves when the time is right is an organization that is going to watch its best chances to win a World Series pass right on by like the moon did in front of the sun in August.

There are no guarantees. And two longtime baseball men I spoke with late Thursday night both said they still like Cleveland as the American League's best team, even after Houston added Verlander.

"Cleveland's got really good players," one high-ranking club official said. "And their pitching is terrific, especially with Trevor Bauer going so well lately. And Terry Francona is still the best manager around."

One longtime American League scout said: "I wouldn't be surprised if Cleveland passed Houston and nabbed home-field advantage."

It is true the Astros haven't exactly been on an upswing lately. They lost 10 of their first 14 games in August and finished the month 11-17. Their team ERA for that month was a middling 4.00, seventh in the AL. Their 1.36 WHIP was ninth.

But even before corralling Verlander, things were about to get better. All-Star shortstop Carlos Correa, out since July 17 (torn thumb ligaments), is expected back for Sunday's series finale against the New York Mets or at the Seattle Mariners on Monday. Starter Lance McCullers, out since July 30 (back), is expected to rejoin the rotation in Seattle.

"He might have the best curveball in all of baseball, and when he's right he's an ace," one executive says.

Keuchel, Verlander and McCullers starting Games 1, 2 and 3—yeah, that's winning stuff right there.

Aug 24, 2017; Houston, TX, USA; Houston Astros catcher Brian McCann (16) visits starting pitcher Dallas Keuchel (60) on the mound against the Washington Nationals in the fifth inning at Minute Maid Park. Mandatory Credit: Thomas B. Shea-USA TODAY Sports
Thomas B. Shea-USA TODAY Sports

"He certainly makes them better," the AL scout said of Verlander. "There are obvious age (34) and injury risks, but he's shown the doubters he can bounce back."

Indeed, Verlander is 10-8 with a 3.82 ERA over 172 innings in 28 starts this year. Those 28 starts tie him with five others for the MLB lead. And he's been getting better, going 4-1 with a 2.36 ERA in August.

But then that's what Verlander always has done. A notoriously slow starter, he gets better as he gets deeper into a season. And it's going to be strange watching a lifelong Tiger perform in a new set of work clothes.

But score a big one for the Astros in nailing this down and convincing him to waive his no-trade powers. They owed this to their players and to their battered, resilient city. On the baseball field, October could be some kind of fun.

                  

Scott Miller covers Major League Baseball as a national columnist for Bleacher Report. Follow Scott on Twitter and talk baseball.