For Astros, Justin Verlander’s potential availability raises question: Who’s in charge?


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HOUSTON — Before the trade deadline, Astros general manager Dana Brown claimed that owner Jim Crane handed him the keys and told him to drive the team’s decision-making. That may seem like standard operating procedure, but Crane has heavily inserted himself in baseball operations decisions before, especially toward the end of James Click’s tenure.

Crane owns the team, so it’s his right to tinker however he sees fit. His last-minute influence did precipitate two of the franchise’s most prolific trades: one for Justin Verlander in 2017 and another for Zack Greinke in 2019. Both involved big enough contracts to warrant Crane’s final approval, but he carried far more weight than just a financial rubber stamp.

That he vetoed a deal for rental catcher Willson Contreras last August invited wonder about how wide Crane’s influence reached within the baseball operations department. That he oversaw the team’s entire offseason without a general manager only amplified the question.

After he hired Brown, Crane told The New York Times he never wanted to be the team’s GM and added “I told Dana: ‘You’re running the show.’”

“He’s given me the steering wheel and said ‘Hey, this is your job. You get it done. Just keep me posted as to what’s going on,’” Brown said last week as the trade deadline approached. “I’ve kept him posted and we’ve had conversations. … He’s pretty much given me the steering wheel and said ‘Hey, this is your gig, so get it done.’”

Four months later, the partnership may reach its first inflection point. Verlander’s apparent availability — and the Astros’ need for a starting pitcher — could put the dynamics to an ultimate test. That the Texas Rangers lead the American League West and acquired Max Scherzer from the Mets on Saturday only heightens the intrigue.

Nothing about the Astros’ available prospect capital or Crane’s previous track record suggests that Houston is equipped to make a legitimate push to re-acquire Verlander from the Mets. Nothing Brown has said during his two public appearances indicates he’s about to author that type of blockbuster, either.

During the trade deadline, though, one transaction can change the tenor of everything. Scherzer landing with the Rangers is precisely the kind that will. Yet even as the Scherzer saga unfolded before Saturday’s 17-4 win against the Rays, a reunion with Verlander still felt unrealistic to some in the Astros organization.

Crane could change the calculus entirely. He is known to be aggressive when the Astros are legitimate World Series contenders — acquiring Verlander in 2017 and Greinke in 2019 is proof of it. According to FanGraphs, his team entered Saturday’s game with a 7.7 percent chance to win it all. Only three teams had higher odds. The Rangers were not one of them, but they had yet to acquire Scherzer.

Crane and Verlander are extremely close, a fact that can not be overstated. Verlander credited Crane — and Crane alone — for negotiating the one-year, $25 million contract he played under last season. Crane has engineered one short-term, high-dollar extension for Verlander, too  — a two-year, $66 million pact prior to the 2019 season that prevented him from hitting free agency in 2020. Verlander injured his elbow on Opening Day 2020 and made just one start during the life of the contract.

Verlander already waived one no-trade clause to come to the Astros in 2017 and there is belief in Houston’s current clubhouse that he’d do it again. Verlander is making $43 million this season, is scheduled to make $43 million next season and, if he throws 140 innings in 2024, will have his $35 million option vest for the 2025 season, during which Verlander will be 42.

Crane had the chance to give Verlander a similar contract last winter. He declined and told the Houston Chronicle afterward that negotiations “got to a number we couldn’t match.” Houston then lost two members of its starting rotation to season-ending elbow injuries and another, José Urquidy, for more than two months with a shoulder ailment.

“Would have been nice to have (Verlander). We had a good relationship. We just couldn’t get to that number,” Crane told the newspaper in December.

It’s possible, of course, that Crane wouldn’t have to. Multiple reports on Saturday night said the Mets and owner Steve Cohen are paying $36 million of Scherzer’s remaining contract. Scherzer had a $43 million player option for the 2024 season, which according to The Athletic’s Ken Rosenthal he will exercise, keeping him in Texas through 2024.

Verlander is also owed $43 million in 2024 with a $35 million option in 2025 that will vest if he throws 140 innings in 2024.  Houston’s current luxury tax payroll, according to FanGraphs, is $220,277,487. Crane exceeded the competitive balance tax after taking on Greinke’s contract in 2019. The Astros have $167,490,477 committed to their luxury tax payroll in 2024 and $101,633,334 in 2025.

Both Jose Altuve and Alex Bregman are scheduled to enter free agency following the 2024 season but, in spring training, Brown was bullish about brokering long-term extensions with them. Two-time All-Stars Kyle Tucker and Framber Valdez are both scheduled to hit free agency after 2025 and profile as logical extension candidates.

Cohen is one of the country’s wealthiest people — and baseball’s richest owner — so it’s unlikely paying down Scherzer’s deal will affect anything he does financially with Verlander or other available Mets. Part of Cohen’s pay-down calculus, though, is the prospect haul in return. For Scherzer, the Rangers sent infielder Luisangel Acuña, whom The Athletic’s Keith Law ranked No. 58 in his most recent Top 60.

The Astros have no prospects listed in the Top 100 of any public prospect rankings. Their farm system is universally considered one of the five worst in the sport — and already got somewhat weakened on Friday, when Brown parted with former first-round pick Korey Lee in exchange for reliever Kendall Graveman.

Houston could perhaps create a prospect package that satisfies the Mets or trade from its major-league roster, but will find itself lagging if this turns into a competition with the Los Angeles Dodgers, who have also expressed interest in Verlander and boast a far more bountiful farm system. If Crane is reluctant to pay the entire remaining contract — or something close to it — the prospect paucity presents the Astros’ biggest hurdle.

After acquiring Graveman on Friday, Brown sounded like someone cautiously content with the starting rotation as it stands. He did not rule out adding another starter, saying “if we can land something that makes sense and we don’t have to mortgage the farm, we may be in business on doing that.” Putting together the type of prospect package Cohen and the Mets require could count as mortgaging the farm. Crane hired Brown, in part, for his drafting background and with the understanding that Houston’s farm system needed to be refurbished.

On Friday, Brown emphasized that bolstering the bullpen was his biggest priority. It may no longer be his biggest emphasis, but because Brown still has interest in a starter, ignoring an available option is a dereliction of duty. Exploring a reunion with Verlander is part of his job description, but whether it will actually come to fruition is not his call.

For that, Crane may take the wheel.

(Top photo of Justin Verlander: Lon Horwedel / USA Today)

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Alexandra Williams
Alexandra Williams
Alexandra Williams is a writer and editor. Angeles. She writes about politics, art, and culture for LinkDaddy News.

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