On Sunday, the baseball world went into a panic twice. The first panic came on the heels of a group of Miami Marlins players and coaches testing positive for Covid-19. The original number of players was reported as four. That number grew to fourteen on Monday, as games were postponed. Ultimately, panic number one could prove to be the more tragic, as the sport holds its collective breath for an uninterrupted season.
The second panic to emerge on Sunday was the report that three-time Cy Young Award winner, Justin Verlander, was out for the season with an elbow injury.
In the evening, Verlander took to Twitter to quell the rumors that his season was over. Emphasizing that the reports were untrue, Verlander explained that he was being shut down to attend to “forearm tightness,” a not-so-encouraging symptom that often precedes an MRI, a torn UCL, and Tommy John surgery. With 2,988 innings logged over a sixteen-year career, such an outcome would be disappointing but not surprising.
While Verlander and the Houston Astros mull over what this injury could mean for their season (perhaps nothing if the Marlins saga continues to deteriorate), the rest of the AL West is left to contemplate how the loss of one of the best pitchers in baseball will affect the reigning AL Champions. The first “victim” of the compromised Astros was the Seattle Mariners, who lost their opening series in Houston 1-3 games. Going into Tuesday’s games, the Astros are in first place with the best record in the majors.
It can’t be denied that subtracting Gerrit Cole in free agency and Justin Verlander to injury is not a positive for the Astros. Zach Greinke was not sharp in his debut outing, giving up 3 runs in 3.1 innings in the only game the Astros failed to win against the Mariners. But, it’s unlikely that an 8.10 ERA and a 1.80 WHIP will be the 2009 AL Cy Young winner’s season’s stat line (Marlins panic caveat invoked).
The Astros lineup is still a brutal gauntlet for AL West (and NL West) pitching to face. A quick glance at last year’s AL pitching stats suggests that Lance Lynn of the Texas Rangers might be the only pitcher in the division capable of containing the Astros’ offense. With Alex Bregman (.296/.423/.592 with 41 HR last season) and George Springer (.292/.383/.591 with 39 HR), not to mention Michael Brantley, Jose Altuve, or Carlos Correa, Houston should be in good shape to make the expanded playoffs, if there are playoffs (Marlins panic caveat invoked).
Under the current expanded playoff format (first and second place in every division plus two wild cards), the Texas Rangers with a 78-84 losing record would’ve qualified for the postseason. Going back ten years, there are seasons that two losing teams would’ve made the playoffs. Heck, the Mariners would have made the playoffs four times in the last decade. That the Astros will be fine in the regular season is pretty much a given. Their ability to go deep in the playoffs and possibly return to the World Series depends very much on the right elbow of a thirty-seven-year-old Justin Verlander.