Mets trade Justin Verlander to Astros: What he means for Houston’s postseason push

By Ken Rosenthal, Chandler Rome, Will Sammon, Tim Britton and Eno Sarris

The New York Mets traded three-time Cy Young winner Justin Verlander to the Houston Astros on Tuesday, the teams announced. Here’s what you need to know:

  • The Mets receive outfielders Ryan Clifford and Drew Gilbert from Houston, who also receive cash considerations in the trade.
  • Verlander was in his first season with the Mets after signing a two-year, $86 million deal with a vest option through 2025. In 2023, he is 6-5, with a 3.15 ERA and 1.145 WHIP.
  • Verlander, who picked up his 250th career win on Sunday, was previously traded in 2017 to Houston from the Tigers. He helped the Astros to a World Series title that fall and another in 2022.
  • The Verlander trade follows the Mets sending Max Scherzer to the Texas Rangers in exchange for minor league INF/OF Luisangel Acuña.

Athletics‘s instant analysis:

How Verlander ended up back in Houston

This could have been engineered eight months ago, after Verlander won his third Cy Young Award, authored perhaps the best season of his Hall of Fame career and capped it off with Houston’s second World Series championship.

Instead, Astros owner Jim Crane stuck to the same philosophy he has held throughout his tenure. He made Verlander an offer he was comfortable with and wouldn’t budge on. Verlander signed a two-year, $86.6 million deal with the Mets, and afterward Crane told the Houston Chronicle that it “got to a number we couldn’t match.”

Circumstances changed and forced Crane to overcorrect. He did not sign any starting pitching depth this winter while overseeing the team’s baseball operations department. Three of his returning starters suffered long-term injuries. Two – Lance McCullers Jr. and Luis Garcia – are out for the season.

The injuries to Garcia, McCullers and José Urquidy are well-documented, but more concerning leaks have occurred in Houston’s rotation since early June. Framber Valdez has battled inconsistency. Cristian Javier has not responded well to an increased workload. Rookies Hunter Brown and JP France have been steady, but relying on them for an entire season feels tenuous.

Since June 5, a span of 48 games, Houston’s starting rotation has a 4.56 ERA and a 4.83 FIP. Across that span, only seven rotations had a higher WHIP than Houston’s 1.37 clip. Five of them belong to non-contending teams: Colorado Rockies, Washington Nationals, St. Louis Cardinals, Chicago White Sox and Pittsburgh Pirates.

Another is the Texas Rangers, who acquired Scherzer on Saturday and Jordan Montgomery on Sunday, all but forcing the Astros to respond. Crane entered the fray and spearheaded the deal for Verlander, who he remains very close to. — Rome

Dana Brown changes his mind about prospects

The trade is the antithesis of everything first-year general manager Dana Brown projected through his first deadline in charge. Now it is reasonable to question who exactly is responsible.

Crane hired Brown in part to rebuild Houston’s barren farm system, considered one of the five worst in the sport. All month, Brown seemed reluctant to part with the few high-end prospects Houston had, projecting “sustainable winning” while acknowledging he “really didn’t want to give up the farm.”

On Tuesday, he pretty much did. By all accounts, Gilbert and Clifford were two of the team’s top prospects. Gilbert was the best, a former Tennessee outfielder and first-round pick who some in the organization — including Brown — believed could have been on the big league roster by September. Gilbert struggled to start his Double-A career, but bounced back just before the trade deadline.

To pry him away from his commitment to Vanderbilt, Houston gave Clifford a $1,256,530 signing bonus after selecting him in the 11th round of the 2021 draft. He slashed .291/.399/.520 across both levels of A-ball this season.

The Astros had a surplus of outfielders in the upper minor leagues, but parting ways with those two players is a high price Brown didn’t expect him to be willing to pay. — Rome

How did the Mets get here and what’s next?

In a winter defined by spending, one of the first marquee names to sign with the Mets ahead of the 2023 season was Verlander. The Mets added the future Hall of Famer — who was coming off the best season ever by a 39-year-old pitcher — to replace Jacob deGrom, who fled to Texas in free agency, leaving a void along with Scherzer at the top of the New York rotation. In his introductory news conference, Verlander said he joined the Mets because he believed in billionaire Steve Cohen’s ability to invest heavily for a winning club. Cohen did his part. He kept using. The Mets made a record salary. From there, however, nothing went according to plan. Verlander missed the first month of the season with a minor injury. After that, he pitched inconsistently before turning things up over the past few weeks. By then it was too late; The Mets had already stumbled too far down the standings.

So the Mets have changed course. In the last handful of days, the Mets have named Scherzer and Verlander. They then traded Scherzer, prompting Verlander to openly reconsider how he felt about the Mets. Scherzer, assuming he would exercise his player option, would have been in New York in 2024. Previously, Verlander had said he was committed to the organization because it remained committed to winning. It turns out the Mets might not be as all-in for 2024 as they were in 2023. That changed the situation. In addition to impending free agent Tommy Pham, there is a distinct possibility that several players under contract after 2023 could be moved. — Sammon

What the Mets are getting back

Evaluators consider Gilbert a high-energy player with the ability to play midfield. He projects as a plus runner and solid defender with a good combination of a hit tool and the ability to hit for power. Clifford is considered a corner outfield type with plus raw power. While Clifford was taken in the 11th round of the draft, it’s important to note that he was an over-slot guy; he was headed to Vanderbilt, and the talent, especially of occasional plus-plus power, has been there. — Sammon

What does this mean for New York in 2024?

It means what Billy Eppler said Sunday: that the Mets do not enter 2024 as serious championship contenders. Say what you will about Verlander and Scherzer not living up to their contracts or their pedigrees this season; they were still useful pieces now and for the very near future, and New York will need to replace them. The difficulty of that task will likely be highlighted over the next two months as the Mets hold tryouts.

Right now, their 2024 rotation consists of Kodai Senga and Jose Quintana, the latter of whom may still not be on the team that will start tonight.

Epler’s other comments Sunday also signal a less aggressive approach to free agency. The Mets had seen Verlander and Scherzer as bridges, pieces that could succeed in the majors until the farm system was built up enough so the club didn’t have to spend as much in free agency. But that bridge is gone, the farm system isn’t ready to replace it, and the best options in free agency will require significantly longer commitments than two or three years. Eppler said Sunday that the club prefers free agents who complement an existing core rather than those who compose it. Doesn’t sound like a guy who’s about to offer Shohei Ohtani $500 million or more. — Britton

Verlander’s efficiency

Don’t let the strikeout percentage fool you, Verlander is still a difference maker. By pairing a top-10 pitcher (among starters with a minimum of 50 innings pitched, by Stuff+) with a good curveball, average changeup, and average fastball — and adding the ability to command those pitches, as well as a high Moxy+ and Pitchability+ — he can still banging. He is a top-10 pitcher. Even at 40 years old. Even with his worst fastball velocity in seven years.

Perhaps in response to the fact that pitchers are getting hit harder this year than ever, Verlander has dialed back the use of that switch. It may have something to do with the missing strikethroughs. Here’s a bet that a return to the organization for which he had his highest strikeouts will help him find those missing whiffs.

In any case, the Astros needed a front-line starter this year. Javier’s fastball has disappeared, and while the young Brown and France have been revelations, manager Dusty Baker will feel much better about writing in a future Hall of Famer next to Valdez at the top of a rotation that most likely will be playing in October again. — Sarris

Required reading

(Photo: Vincent Carchietta / USA Today)

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