Justin Verlander Reunites With the Astros as the Mets Continue Their Teardown

Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

The Mets’ losses are the American League West’s gains. Three days after the Rangers landed Max Scherzer, the Astros have reacquired Justin Verlander, who less than nine months ago helped them win the World Series, and soon after pocketed his third Cy Young Award. In exchange for the future Hall of Famer and a whole lot of cash, the Mets are receiving two of the Astros’ top prospects, lefty-swinging outfielders Drew Gilbert and Ryan Clifford.

This is the continuation of a stunning about-face for the Mets, who signed Verlander to a two-year, $86.7 million contract in December and opened the season with a record-setting $352 million payroll. They entered Tuesday at 50-55, 17.5 games out of first place and six back in the Wild Card race, with seven teams above them. Once owner Steve Cohen gave general manager Billy Eppler the green light to trade closer David Robertson to the Marlins last Friday, the dominoes began falling, with Scherzer waiving his no-trade clause to be dealt to Texas, and then Mark Canha being sent to Milwaukee on Monday.

As with the Scherzer deal, the Mets are eating the majority of the remaining money on Verlander’s contract to improve their return. They sent $35.5 million out of the roughly $57.7 million remaining on Scherzer’s two-year, $86.7 million contract to Texas and received middle infielder Luisangel Acuña, a 50-FV prospect who’s currently no. 56 on The Board. Via the New York Post’s Joel Sherman, the Mets will send $52.5 million of the $93 million remaining on Verlander’s pact, assuming his 2025 conditional player option vests. They’ll pay $35 million to help cover this year and next; he’s due around another $14.2 million for 2023 and $43.3 million for ’24. If he pitches 140 innings in 2024 and does not have a right arm injury that would prevent him from being on the active roster for Opening Day ’25, he’ll make $35 million, of which the Mets will pay half.

For that considerable chunk of change, the Mets are receiving 22-year-old Drew Gilbert, a center fielder currently at Double-A, and 20-year-old Ryan Clifford, a corner outfielder/first baseman currently in High-A. Gilbert and Clifford began the season as the Astros’ third- and fifth-ranked prospects, but with the graduations of Hunter Brown and Yainer Diaz and this week’s trade of Korey Lee to the White Sox in the Kendall Graveman deal, they had become the team’s top two prospects. Gilbert, a 50-FV prospect, is no. 49 on The Board and becomes the Mets’ top-ranked prospect, while Clifford, a 45-FV prospect, is now no. 8 in the Mets system. More on them below.

For the Astros, this is a reunion made necessary by injuries. The team entered the season with an all-homegrown starting five of Framber Valdez, Cristian Javier, Luis Garcia, José Urquidy, and Lance McCullers Jr., with Brown waiting in the wings. Garcia made just six starts before tearing his UCL on May 1 and undergoing Tommy John surgery in mid-May, while McCullers never was on the active roster and underwent season-ending surgery to repair a torn flexor tendon and remove a bone spur from his right forearm in mid-June. Additionally, Urquidy hasn’t pitched in the majors since April 30 — the day before Garcia’s injury — due to shoulder inflammation, though he just made his fourth and possibly final rehab start on Sunday. Rookie J.P. France and reliever-turned-starter Brandon Bielak have rounded out the rotation since early May and have pitched credibly; by ERA, the former’s 2.85 and the latter’s 3.69 rank first and third among this group, with Valdez’s 3.29 second. That said, Bielak’s 5.24 FIP is the highest of the starters besides Urquidy.

For all of those injuries, the Astros rotation ranks second in the AL in both ERA (3.81) and innings (600.1), fourth in WAR (8.7), and fifth in FIP (4.25), and the team is 60-47, half a game behind the Rangers in the division race. But particularly with Javier regressing to a 4.33 ERA and 4.31 FIP after last year’s breakout, they needed a frontline starter, and between the market’s limitations, Verlander’s connection to owner Jim Crane, and his ability to control his destiny by choosing whether or not to waive his no-trade clause, this deal felt inevitable. Via MLB Trade Rumors, by Tuesday morning numerous teams besides the Astros were known to have expressed interest in Verlander, including the Dodgers, Orioles, Braves, and Padres, though the last of those appeared to bow out by instead trading for Rich Hill.

As for the 40-year-old Verlander, a year after pulling off what might have been the best post-Tommy John surgery comeback ever, and certainly the best by any pitcher 36 or older, his top-line numbers are good but unremarkable. After missing the first month of the season due to a low-grade teres major strain, he’s pitched to a 3.15 ERA and a 3.81 FIP, with the big cause for concern the deterioration of his strikeout and walk rates. He’s dropped from last year’s 27.8% strikeout rate to 21%, making this the first time since 2015 that he hasn’t punched out more than a batter per inning. Meanwhile, he’s nearly doubled last year’s walk rate, from 4.4% to 8%, and his resultant drop in strikeout-to-walk differential is the majors’ second largest among pitchers with at least 150 innings last year and 70 this year; if you raise the latter threshold to 80 innings, he’s first:

Largest K-BB% Declines from 2022 to 2023
Name ’22 IP ’22 K% ’22 BB% ’22 K-BB% ’23 IP ’23 K% ’23 BB% ’23 K-BB% Change
Alek Manoah 196.2 22.9% 6.5% 16.4% 76.2 18.4% 14.6% 3.8% -12.6%
Carlos Carrasco 152.0 23.6% 6.4% 17.2% 70.1 16.1% 9.9% 6.2% -11.0%
Justin Verlander 175.0 27.8% 4.4% 23.4% 94.1 21.0% 8.0% 13.0% -10.4%
Shane Bieber 200.0 25.0% 4.6% 20.4% 117.0 19.4% 6.7% 12.7% -7.7%
Corbin Burnes 202.0 30.5% 6.4% 24.1% 133.1 25.2% 8.5% 16.7% -7.4%
Shane McClanahan 166.1 30.3% 5.9% 24.4% 111.0 26.1% 9.1% 17.0% -7.4%
Aaron Nola 205.0 29.1% 3.6% 25.5% 138.0 24.7% 5.9% 18.8% -6.7%
Martín Pérez 196.1 20.6% 8.4% 12.2% 108.1 14.4% 8.6% 5.8% -6.4%
Brady Singer 153.1 24.2% 5.6% 18.6% 113.2 19.9% 7.6% 12.3% -6.3%
Tyler Anderson 178.2 19.5% 4.8% 14.7% 99.1 17.9% 9.2% 8.7% -6.0%
SOURCE: Baseball Savant
Minimum 150 innings pitched in 2022 and 70 in 2023.

That’s four of the top seven pitchers in last year’s AL Cy Young voting (Verlander plus the third-place Manoah, sixth-place McLanahan and seventh-place Bieber), plus numbers four (Nola) and seven (Burnes) in the NL voting; at the 70-inning cutoff, AL fourth-place finisher Shohei Ohtani is 13th, and NL winner Sandy Alcantara is 14th. Pitchers, man… It’s also worth noting that two Mets rank among the top three, which hints at the underperformance of a rotation from which so much was expected.

That said, Verlander has pitched much better lately, allowing just nine runs (seven earned) in 42.1 innings over his last seven starts, good for a 1.49 ERA and 3.18 FIP, compared to a 4.50 ERA and 4.33 FIP in 52 innings over his first nine starts. His strikeout and walk rates haven’t changed much, but he’s done a much better job of avoiding hard contact in that span; his average exit velocity has dropped from 91.2 mph to 87.7 mph, his barrel rate from 7.6% to 2.6%, and his hard-hit rate from 44.3% to 32.2%. I’m using an arbitrary endpoint to make my point here, but the teams keeping tabs on Verlander had to notice the trend.

One thing that seems to be driving Verlander’s rebound is that his four-seam fastball has suddenly become much more effective against righties:

Justin Verlander Four-Seam Fastball Splits vs. Righthanded Batters
Through June 20 63 16 5 .267 .281 .583 .538 .370 .363 95.1
Since June 26 42 5 0 .139 .198 .167 .262 .214 .271 92.1
SOURCE: Baseball Savant

Wow. Spec-wise, I can’t pinpoint a reason for this; his average vertical release point has dropped from 7.08 feet to 6.96 (about an inch and a half), but there’s enough start-to-start variance within those numbers that I don’t think it means anything. What’s more, the drop hasn’t appreciably changed his average horizontal release point, velocity, spin rate, extension, or movement either horizontally or vertically. What has changed is the location of those fastballs:

Verlander’s fastball location against righties in his first nine starts in 2023 was similar to how he rolled in 2022. Its average height as it crossed the plate was 3.05 feet last year and 3.03 feet during those first nine starts, but it’s down to 2.79 across the last seven, a difference of about three inches. He’s throwing about half as many pitches in the upper third of the zone or higher than before (5.2% of all pitches, vs. 10.3% in that first 2023 stretch). His xSLG on those pitches has dropped from .448 to .291, and his xwOBA from .323 to .292; meanwhile, his whiff rate in that location has climbed from 24.7% to 30.3%. All of which is to say that Verlander has made the necessary adjustments to get back to pitching effectively by trading strikeouts for soft contact.

As for the prospects, Gilbert was the 28th pick of the 2022 draft out of the University of Tennessee, a fast riser who has split this season between High-A Asheville and Double-A Corpus Christi, hitting .274/.363/.458 with 12 homers and 10 steals while striking out 18.7% of the time. Listed at just 5-foot-9 and 185 pounds (but “yoked,” to use Eric Longenhagen’s description), he’s got average-or-better tools across the board, highlighted by a plus arm, plus speed, and above-average raw power. From Longehagen’s writeup from early June:

[W]hile Gilbert shows some hitterish characteristics, he is less of a bat control master than just a twitchy, short-levered player who is tough to beat because of how concise his swing is. His barrel is in the zone for a long time and he tends to find a way to put the ball in play, using his strength to spray balls past infielders. He’s making roughly an average rate of contact so far in 2023 but is also hitting the ball harder than expected. When Gilbert collapses his back side and leans on one, he’ll show you big pull-side lift, and he does most of his extra-base damage by yanking doubles down the right field line.

A plus runner, Gilbert can really go get it in center field and has a great arm. His hands and ball skills aren’t the best, and there are some scouts who think he’ll be plus in a corner rather than stick in center.

Longehagen added that Gilbert is “a spicy heel,” the type of edgy player you love to have on your team but hate to play against. As for Clifford, who lists at 6-foot-3, 200 pounds, he was an 11th-round pick last year out of the Pro5 Baseball Academy in North Carolina. He’s split his season between A-level Fayetteville and Asheville, hitting .291/.399/.520 with 18 homers and a 24% strikeout rate. At Fayetteville he put up above-average contact rates and exit velocities that almost pushed him into the Top 100, but he had some early contact issues at Asheville, though those seem to have dissipated; after striking out in 32.8% of his first 70 PA, he’s dropped that to 21.7% over his last 180 PA.

Clifford has a plus arm and plus raw power but the rest of his tools grade out as below average. Via Longehagen:

His visual evaluation as a hitter is one of passivity and a bottom-hand dominant swing that tends to be underneath fastballs in the upper half of the zone. His bat speed and physicality are for real, though, and Clifford shows the ability to move the barrel around the bottom two thirds of the zone, and he cuts his stride with two strikes. He’s a good rotational athlete whose move forward is balanced but explosive. Clifford already has plus power and, even though it looks like the cement is mostly dry on his body, he could end up with 70-grade pop through sheer physical maturity. Because he exists near the bottom of the defensive spectrum (he’s playing first base and both outfield corners) and we still have apprehension around his hit tool, we aren’t running Clifford all the way up into the Top 100… He projects as the strong side of a right field platoon.

All told, this is a pretty good haul for the Mets considering the circumstances, a continuation of their stockpiling of prospects as they dismantle the Most Expensive Team Money Could Buy. For the Astros, they’ve corrected the error they made in letting Verlander walk at the cost of two prospects, but they’re getting a pretty good pitcher to whom they’ll pay just $39 million for 2 1/3 seasons, and they’re once again positioned for another October run.

Brooklyn-based Jay Jaffe is a senior writer for FanGraphs, the author of The Cooperstown Casebook (Thomas Dunne Books, 2017) and the creator of the JAWS (Jaffe WAR Score) metric for Hall of Fame analysis. He founded the Futility Infielder website (2001), was a columnist for Baseball Prospectus (2005-2012) and a contributing writer for Sports Illustrated (2012-2018). He has been a recurring guest on MLB Network and a member of the BBWAA since 2011, and a Hall of Fame voter since 2021. Follow him on Twitter @jay_jaffe... and BlueSky @jayjaffe.bsky.social.

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Roger McDowell Hot Foot
8 months ago

Sort of interesting to contrast the Mets’ and Cardinals’ deadline selling approaches — both teams’ area of need is 2024-and-later pitching, but while the Cards clearly targeted near-ready young pitching the Mets took the “best player available” approach and stockpiled almost exclusively position players. The Mets’ system obviously improved a lot but they seem to have a bunch of guys who are near the majors and obviously blocked by long-term major leaguers on the 2024 Mets. I have to assume there’s a second stage to this plan where guys like Gilbert are going to be turned into pitching during the offseason.

Last edited 8 months ago by Roger McDowell Hot Foot
8 months ago

I have to assume DOLLARS will be turned into pitching in the off-season.

Prospects will be either held to maturity, or traded next away next August to bolster a theoretically contending Mets squad.

Last edited 8 months ago by HappyFunBall
Roger McDowell Hot Foot
8 months ago
Reply to  HappyFunBall

Sure, but (a) there are going to be a lot of holes to fill in that rotation and we’ve just seen how it went when Eppler tried to fill them all with buckets of Steve Cohen’s money, and (b) the Mets have noplace to put Drew Gilbert for the next however many years. I think they have to be viewing him as a future trade chip.

Last edited 8 months ago by Roger McDowell Hot Foot
8 months ago

If Drew Gilbert is actually good, he can play in CF whenever he comes up and you slide Nimmo over to left

Now that “if” is heavily caveated

8 months ago

Gilbert and Nimmo would make a good tag team. I don’t know which one would be in a corner and which one would be in CF but neither one is going to be a lights out defender in CF but have a lot of range for a corner OF.

David Klein
8 months ago

Lol huh? Mets are light in OF prospects and have a hole in LF and Marte is gone in a few years. I think Mauricio is more likely to be moved than Gilbert.

8 months ago

You honestly think that the corpse of Starling Marte is going to block Drew Gilbert?

Acuna at 2b, Gilbert in RF and McNeil in LF.

The only guy who’s blocked in any of this is Mauricio

David Klein
8 months ago
Reply to  hebrew

Yeah if Marte has another bad year next year I can see the Mets buying Marte out of his last year of his deal in 2025.

8 months ago

In baseball, “best player available” is always the best way to go. You need 13 pitchers and hitters can play different positions.

That doesn’t even account for the need to stock 5 minor league levels and the ability to stash talent there which can be used to obtain talent to fill any needs that arise on the major league level.

8 months ago
Reply to  MikeS

I think there is an interesting debate about the relative value of hitters versus pitchers, though. Some think pitchers should be valued less because they break and turn bad inexplicably a lot more often. But that also creates a scarcity for them, leading others to value them more. I think every team would say they go for the best prospect available but if you pressed them on it, that global evaluation probably affects which prospect they consider to be “the best.”

8 months ago

Idk, the Mets are light on position players too, particularly in the outfield. They’re set at 1B, CF, SS, and catcher, but they just traded Canha and can’t seriously plan on playing Marte next year. Pretty easy to fit Gilbert into either corner, and long term CF once Nimmo ages off

Last edited 8 months ago by Dmjn53