Coming into the shortened 2020 season, the Houston Astros could have assumed two Cy Young Award winners would anchor their otherwise thin starting rotation.
Now they know one of them will be out for a while. The team announced Sunday that veteran right-hander Justin Verlander has a forearm strain, which manager Dusty Baker says will keep him out for weeks:
Citing two sources, an initial report from Chandler Rome of the Houston Chronicle claimed Verlander was actually set to miss the remainder of the season.
That may yet be a possibility if his injury is worse than the Astros are saying. As ESPN's Jeff Passan noted on Twitter, the term "forearm strain" is "often code for elbow problems."
However, the Astros aren't alone in downplaying Verlander's injury. The man himself is, too:
Verlander, 37, has been with the Astros since coming over from the Detroit Tigers in a waiver trade in August 2017. It's been the happiest of unions, as Verlander has put up a 2.45 ERA in 74 regular-season starts and also pitched in two World Series.
Most recently, Verlander captured his second American League Cy Young Award in 2019. That required posting a 2.58 ERA and leading the AL with 21 wins, 223 innings pitched and a 0.80 WHIP.
Yet this year has thus far been a rocky one for Verlander. Before the coronavirus pandemic put everything on hold in March, he was due to begin the season on the injured list with a lat strain. He later had surgery on his groin.
Verlander was fully recovered from both injuries when he made his 2020 debut against the Seattle Mariners at Minute Maid Park on Friday. He also gave little indication that anything was wrong with his arm. In six innings, he struck out seven and allowed only two runs on three hits and a walk. His fastball averaged a ho-hum 94.9 mph.
Yet according to Rome, Verlander confessed to having a "tender" arm Friday. Even if he doesn't miss the rest of the season, simply sitting for a couple of weeks figures to cost him at least three starts.
In an ordinary year, that wouldn't necessarily be a killing blow for the Astros. But in a 60-game schedule in which every game basically counts as three games, Houston not having its best pitcher for a couple of weeks is potentially huge.
Of course, one silver lining for the Astros is that this year's expanded playoff field could allow them to play in a fourth straight postseason even if they finish as the third-best team in the AL West.
Plus, they might still be the favorites to win the division.
As of Sunday evening, FanGraphs and Baseball Prospectus projected them for 35 and 37 wins, respectively. No other AL West team is slated to win more than 32 games in either projection system. So even after Verlander's injury moves those needles, the Astros might remain the team to beat on paper.
The Astros can take further comfort in knowing two of their competitors were also on the receiving end of bad news regarding key starters Sunday.
The Texas Rangers lost Corey Kluber, himself a two-time Cy Young Award winner, to right shoulder tightness. The Los Angeles Angels welcomed Shohei Ohtani back to the mound for the first time in two years Sunday, only to watch him give up five runs without recording a single out against the Oakland Athletics.
But lest the Astros breathe too easy, their rotation simply may not have the depth to weather a weeks-long absence on Verlander's part.
The Astros will be able to feel reasonably safe when the ball is in the hands of Zack Greinke, who's still an ace even 11 years after winning his only Cy Young. But sans free-agent departees Gerrit Cole and Wade Miley, there's nothing but question marks after him.
Lance McCullers Jr. returned from Tommy John surgery to make his first start in two years Saturday. It wasn't very encouraging, as his fastball velocity was down and he gave up five hits and three walks in six innings.
After McCullers come Josh James and Framber Valdez. The former has made all of four starts in the majors. The latter has a 5.25 ERA in 13 career starts.
After those two, Houston's list of functional starters essentially runs out. Brad Peacock, Jose Urquidy, Austin Pruitt and Rogelio Armenteros are on the injured list. There is top prospect Forrest Whitley, but he still has some stock to reclaim after pitching to a 7.99 ERA in the minors in 2019.
The Astros may have to turn to the trade market for help, but the expanded playoff field could result in a shortage of teams looking to sell at the August 31 deadline. As it is, there wouldn't seem to be any Verlander- or Greinke-level arms slated to hit the market anyway.
Alternatively, the Astros could hope to skate by on an offense that led the American League in average, on-base percentage and slugging percentage last season. But that's also not at full strength right now. It's notably missing reigning AL Rookie of the Year Yordan Alvarez, who was only recently cleared to resume baseball activities after landing on the IL for undisclosed reasons.
It's a stretch to say the Astros are broken, but this is the most vulnerable they've been in some time. The A's, Angels and Rangers will all be looking to take advantage. If they're able, even the AL's expanded playoff field might not have room for the Astros in the end.
The worst-case scenario for Houston is obviously much more frightening. If "forearm strain" is indeed code for "elbow problems" in this case, they may not have Verlander for the rest of 2020 and perhaps all of 2021 if he needs Tommy John surgery. Because his current contract only runs through next season, Tommy John might even mean the end of his Hall of Fame-worthy career.
In the meantime, all Verlander and the Astros can do is cross their fingers and hope they get better news a few weeks down the line.