Astros Manager Dusty Baker also said it was a “forearm strain” and added that Verlander will be “shut down for a couple weeks,” at which point he will be reevaluated.
Even if the 37-year-old Verlander returns this season, it appears he is set to miss at least several weeks, given that he will need to rehabilitate his arm and go through training sessions before being put back into action. That timeline would have the reigning AL Cy Young Award winner out for a major chunk of what MLB shortened to a 60-game sprint to the postseason, after the sport went on hiatus for four months amid the novel coronavirus pandemic.
Suddenly, the Astros, who already lost star pitcher Gerrit Cole to the New York Yankees in free agency, look very thin in their starting rotation. Another decorated veteran, 36-year-old Zack Greinke, is next in line for the ace role, but he got off to a shaky start in his season debut Sunday and was lifted after throwing 58 pitches over just 3⅓ innings in a 7-6 loss at home to the Seattle Mariners.
“It’s not a pleasant situation, to think about Verlander or thinking about how many young players we have in the bullpen and organization, but we’ll go back to the drawing board,” Baker said.
In the baseball world, a diagnosis of “forearm strain” is often understood to be a euphemism for an elbow problem. Such injuries can lead to Tommy John ligament-replacement surgeries, improvements in which have led to a number of successful recoveries in recent years but which still shelve pitchers for 12 months or more.
The Chronicle cited two people with knowledge of the situation in reporting that Verlander’s elbow was injured and that he was out for the rest of the season.
The newspaper noted that Astros pitcher Lance McCullers Jr. was diagnosed with a forearm strain in August 2018, at which point there was hope he might return that September. Instead, McCullers underwent Tommy John surgery on his right elbow in November 2018 and missed the entire 2019 season.
McCullers, 26, is back this season but Houston was relying on a pair of inexperienced pitchers, Josh James and Framber Valdez, to fill out its rotation. With two veteran options, Austin Pruitt and Brad Peacock, still out with injuries, Baker said he wasn’t immediately sure who would replace Verlander for his scheduled start on Wednesday.
“All this happened kind of quickly,” Baker said (via the Chronicle). “We don’t have any answers for you yet.”
According to the manager, Verlander’s injury occurred during his start Friday that opened Houston’s season. The eight-time all-star threw six strong innings in an 8-2 Astros win, but he told the team that his right arm felt “a little tender” and was removed after 73 pitches in what seemed like a precautionary measure.
“He said he felt fine, and you see he was throwing the ball great,” Baker said. “It was kind of a shock to all of us.”
That game was Baker’s first with the Astros, whose previous manager, A.J. Hinch, was fired in January after an MLB investigation determined the team ran an illegal sign-stealing scheme during the 2017 season, when it won the World Series, and into the 2018 campaign.
General Manager Jeff Luhnow was also fired, following one-year suspensions handed to him and Hinch, in a scandal that rocked the baseball world and earned the Astros widespread derision.
Baker, now 71, was brought in as much for his well-respected aura in the sport as for his considerable acumen. For his part, he saw the job as “a chance at a world championship,” a prize that has long eluded him as a manager, but now he and the Astros appear to have an uphill climb ahead of them.
Verlander won his second Cy Young last year after leading the major leagues with 223 innings pitched and tying for the lead with 34 games started, to go with a 2.58 ERA and an MLB-leading 0.803 WHIP. Wednesday will mark Verlander’s first missed start for the Astros since they acquired him in an August 2017 trade with the Detroit Tigers that went a long way toward helping Houston win its first World Series that year.
“It’s tough,” Astros third baseman Alex Bregman said. “He’s a Cy Young [winner]. He’s a top-of-the-rotation guy, top-of-the-rotation teammate, hard worker. We’re going to have to just battle. Some guys are going to have to step up.”