What’s next for the Astros with Justin Verlander out?

Justin Verlander’s 2020 season may be finished after one start.

The Astros’ ace will be out for “a couple weeks” because of a forearm strain after pitching in Friday’s opener, manager Dusty Baker told reporters Sunday. With the shortened regular season lasting just nine more weeks through Sept. 27, a shutdown followed by rehab might leave little time for Verlander to be ready to pitch in games later in the season.

And that’s assuming Verlander needs just two weeks off before he resumes throwing. Baker said the team will reevaluate the pitcher after that time. “We don’t know,” Baker said as he responded to a question about whether Verlander will pitch again this season. He added the injury was a “shock” to everyone.

Verlander denied an earlier report by the Houston Chronicle, which cited two sources with knowledge of the situation, that he would miss the remainder of the season.

Baker said the strain occurred as Verlander pitched in the Astros’ 8-2 victory over the Mariners; the manager also said that Verlander reported he felt “fine” but also that his arm was “tender.” Verlander threw 73 pitches (48 strikes) over six innings. He underwent an MRI exam Saturday, Baker said, per the Chronicle.

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Verlander underwent surgery in March to repair a groin injury but was deemed healthy for summer camp.

The Astros were the heavy preseason favorites to win the AL West and were expected to ride Verlander deep into the playoffs. The postseason plan is now in jeopardy, but the expanded playoff field for 2020 means Houston should still get there. For the short term, here’s what the club can do to stay on track.

Justin Verlander injury: How the Astros can compensate

Ensure that Lance McCullers Jr. and Zack Greinke can hold up. McCullers is coming off Tommy John surgery and Greinke displayed lower-than-normal velocity in his first start, which lasted just 3 1/3 innings. They each move up a spot in the rotation with Verlander out. Even though the season is just 60 games, Houston needs to take a longer view and keep those two ready to handle heavier loads in October.

Lean on the back of the rotation to pick up the slack. The fourth and fifth starters coming into the season were Josh James and Framber Valdez. Jose Urquidy (illness) is not close to ready. James and Valdez pitched well as rookies in 2018 but regressed in 2019. If they can regularly pitch deep into games now, then the Astros might not skip a beat. 

Replace Verlander’s spot with openers and bullpen games. Houston put 15 pitchers on its 30-man Opening Day roster and can shuttle in other pitchers from its alternate training site. It figures to be at 13 pitchers once rosters are trimmed to 26 in late August. Byran Abreu, Cristian Javier and Brandon Bailey are among the active pitchers who could move into a “bulk” role initially. Austin Pruitt, who handled the role while pitching for the Rays, could take over after he comes off the injured list. Brad Peacock would be another candidate but he’s on the IL with shoulder soreness.

Get Forrest Whitley up to speed. The fireballing prospect has been brought along slowly in camp as he makes his way back from the shoulder fatigue that helped to ruin his 2019 minor league season. He still averaged 12.97 strikeouts per nine innings last year, which shows how much of a weapon he can be if he’s right.

Trade for a pitcher. This will be difficult as teams deal with roster uncertainty because of COVID-19 testing. But if a team falls out of the race early, then it might be able to spare an arm before the Aug. 31 deadline. A more likely scenario is for the Astros to sign a free agent, get him to their alternate site and then get him ready for regular work.

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