On August 31, 2017 the Houston Astros completed a trade with the Detroit Tigers to acquire right-handed starter Justin Verlander. The rest is history, literally.
Flash back to July. At the non-waiver trade deadline, several aces were available. Yu Darvish and Sonny Gray, two of the most coveted pieces available, were both dealt to contenders. But the best deadline deal was done a month later, after everyone passed on a future Hall of Famer.
Almost every playoff team was connected with Verlander in July. The Dodgers, Cubs, Yankees, and even the Astros all were rumored to have picked up the phone and called general manager Al Avila. None of those teams pulled the trigger on July 31. The Dodgers went with World Series losing pitcher Yu Darvish [Ed.: Harsh... but accurate.], the Yankees went with Gray, and the Cubs opted for bullpen and catching depth after acquiring starter Jose Quintana earlier in the season.
The Astros were notably gun-shy. Their lone move was to acquire Francisco Liriano from the Toronto Blue Jays, and they immediately tossed the veteran in the bullpen. Astros players, especially ace Dallas Keuchel, were publicly displeased. So, a month later, the Astros made the deal in the final moments for Verlander.
Houton likely would not have made it to the World Series without Verlander. The Astros had their worst month of the year in August before acquiring Verlander, going 11-17. They had their second-best month in September, going 20-8. They didn’t lose a game started by Verlander until Game 6 of the World Series. He was the American League Championship Series Most Valuable Player after carving up the Yankees in both of his starts.
As the kids would say, the Astros won the trade. So is the trade deadline changed forever?
This is the second consecutive season the ALCS MVP was acquired via a mid-season trade (the Indians picked up Andrew Miller in 2016). Without Verlander, the Astros would have needed to use Mike Fiers, Joe Musgrove ,or Brad Peacock as their fourth starter. Although he won Game 7 of the ALCS and World Series, the Astros had showed their lack of confidence in Charlie Morton, so much so they skipped his start and allowed Lance McCullers, Jr. to start the final playoff game out of turn.
If Verlander is not in Houston’s starting rotation, it does not allow Morton to come out of the bullpen and throw four innings in Game 7. Instead, he likely would have started that game and the Astros’ shaky bullpen would have needed to string together four innings of relief. Pushing Morton to the fourth starter/swingman role bolstered their depth and ultimately provided the difference in a close series.
The Astros had a 4.13 ERA in the postseason. If you remove Verlander, the team’s postseason ERA jumps to 4.67. Verlander pitched the most innings of any Astro in the postseason, saving Houston’s awful bullpen. He led the team in strikeouts, batting average against, WHIP and he had the lowest ERA of any Houston starter is postseason.
If the Astros made this deal in July, they may have had home field advantage in the World Series, which Los Angeles earned by winning three more games than Houston. At the very least, it is more likely the Astros would have secured the best record in the American League if Verlander was dealt in July.
Let’s say it’s now July 2018. The buyers and sellers are well-defined, and we know who is contending and who is pretending. Old friend Drew Smyly and his expiring contract looks attractive to a team looking to make a playoff push. The Mariners appreciate Smyly’s production but their 16-year postseason drought looks like it will be extended. A similar situation happens in New York, where the Mets begin to sell off pieces of the greatest rotation to never stay healthy. Matt Harvey and his expiring contract looks enticing to potential buyers, and the New York media has had enough of Harvey.
Two pitchers, who, if they are not had in the offseason, could be acquired at the deadline. Teams like the Dodgers, Yankees, Cubs and Red Sox have never been shy to add payroll. All those teams made the playoffs last season but came up short to a team who made the leap and acquired a game changing pitcher. Their front offices and fan bases will surely caution them of the tale of what could have been should the Astros not acquired Verlander in August.
If the Astros hadn’t dealt for Verlander, it is fair to think they would not have even advanced to the World series, let alone won it. If the Dodgers, Cubs or Yankees had traded for Verlander, it is tough to think they wouldn’t have all advanced to the World Series, and possibly won it. Verlander was by far the best player acquired at either deadline and will forever be the tale told to teams to caution towards hesitation at the deadline.