Full Year of Justin Verlander Can Drive Houston Astros to World Series Repeat

Danny KnoblerMLB Lead WriterFebruary 15, 2018

LOS ANGELES, CA - NOVEMBER 01:  Justin Verlander #35 of the Houston Astros celebrates with fiancee Kate Upton after the Astros defeated the Los Angeles Dodgers 5-1 in game seven to win the 2017 World Series at Dodger Stadium on November 1, 2017 in Los Angeles, California.  (Photo by Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images)
Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images

No matter what, the Justin Verlander trade will always be seen as a success in Houston.

He showed up, and barely two months later the Astros were 2017 world champions. They won each of the first 10 games in which he pitched, and though he lost a tough World Series Game 6 in the Astros' first chance to clinch the title, they don't win the ring without him.

But here's where the Verlander story gets even better for the Astros: They have him for the full year in 2018. They have him as a full-fledged Astro, not someone whose first job was to fit in.

They have the right arm they saw in September and October, but they also have the bravado they saw this week.

"The American League goes through us," Verlander told reporters, including Hunter Atkins of the Houston Chronicle, when the Astros began spring training Wednesday.

No one familiar with Verlander will be surprised he said that. No one will be surprised by his tweet the day before, when he took on Christopher Russo of MLB Network, who said there was "no way" the New York Yankees aren't the team to beat in the American League:

It's who Verlander has always been, ever since he arrived in the major leagues with the Detroit Tigers in 2006. He was good, he wasn't afraid to say it and, more importantly, he was determined to prove it.

It's one reason some people who know Gerrit Cole welcomed the January trade from the Pittsburgh Pirates to the Astros. Cole, the thinking went, will only benefit by spending as much time as possible around Verlander.

The two were already linked; both first-round draft choices by Greg Smith, who both times saw a very talented college pitcher with enough rough edges to suggest room for improvement. Both times, Smith bypassed some pitchers with bigger reputations (such as Jeff Niemann and Homer Bailey in the Verlander draft, and Trevor Bauer and Dylan Bundy in the Cole draft).

Both times, Smith was right.

Cole hasn't yet come close to Verlander's accomplishments. Not all those rough edges have been smoothed over—even though he has made an All-Star team and twice pitched in the playoffs. But he should make the Astros better, completing a rotation that looks significantly better than when the 2017 season began.

The Astros rotation then: Dallas Keuchel, Lance McCullers Jr., Charlie Morton, Joe Musgrove, Mike Fiers.

The Astros rotation now: Verlander, Keuchel, Cole, McCullers, Morton.

Does that mean they automatically win the American League West? Of course not.

Does it mean they're far better than the Yankees, the Cleveland Indians and maybe even the Boston Red Sox? No, not far better. Remember, it took them seven games to beat the Yankees last October.

Verlander and Cole are two huge changes for the Astros since Spring Training 2017
Verlander and Cole are two huge changes for the Astros since Spring Training 2017Jeff Roberson/Associated Press

But if you want to anoint a favorite in the AL as spring training begins, it's hard not to agree with Verlander. The league goes through the Astros.

It was true last year, it's true now and it may be true for a few years to come. The Yankees rightfully boast about the young talent on the way and the potential for home run records with Aaron Judge and Giancarlo Stanton in the same lineup. But the Astros weren't the kind of champion that was going to go away quickly.

They're the kind of team that can have you thinking "dynasty," another thought Verlander didn't shy away from in his opening day of spring talk with reporters.

"We definitely have the opportunity to do that," he said.

Last summer's last-minute Verlander trade helped give them that chance. It already paid off with one ring.

It's still amazing it even happened, that a deal that went right down to the wire actually got done. It's still amazing other contenders allowed it to happen, by not putting in a claim on Verlander when the Tigers sent him through waivers earlier in August.

The other contenders essentially stood by and allowed Verlander to become an Astro (although no deal was in place at the time). They allowed the Astros to get the last piece they needed to win a championship.

And because Verlander still had this year and next remaining on his contract, they allowed the Astros to go into 2018 as favorites to win again.

     

Danny Knobler covers Major League Baseball as a national columnist for Bleacher Report.

Follow Danny on Twitter and talk baseball.

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