Two-time Cy Young Award winner Justin Verlander of the Houston Astros needs ligament-replacement surgery on his right elbow, he wrote on Instagram on Saturday — news that deals a crushing blow to the defending American League champions and deepens the crisis of pitching injuries during baseball’s chaotic, pandemic-shortened season.
Verlander, 37, had been trying to return to the Astros from a bout of elbow soreness that forced him to the injured list just one start into the season. But the soreness worsened after a simulated game Wednesday in Houston, and after consulting with several doctors, he made the decision to undergo surgery — which is likely to keep him sidelined through most if not all of 2021.
His two-year, $66 million contract with the Astros expires at the end of 2021, which means he could enter free agency that offseason — as he nears age 39 — having not pitched, save for one start this July, for the better part of two years. With his two Cy Youngs, an MVP award, eight all-star appearances and five strikeout titles in his career, he is considered a near-lock Hall of Famer.
“I was hopeful that I would be able to return to competition in 2020,” he wrote in an Instagram post. “… Obviously, I’m extremely disappointed, but I will not let this slow down my aspirations for my career. I’m confident that with a proper rehabilitation program and my unwavering commitment that this surgery will ultimately lengthen my career as opposed to shorten it.”
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After consulting with several of the best doctors, it has become clear that I need Tommy John surgery. I was hopeful that I would be able to return to competition in 2020, however, during my simulated game unfortunately the injury worsened. Obviously I’m extremely disappointed, but I will not let this slow down my aspirations for my career. I will approach this rehab the only way I know, attack and don’t look back. I’m confident that with a proper rehabilitation program and my unwavering commitment that this surgery will ultimately lengthen my career as opposed to shorten it. I can’t thank my teammates, coaches, the front office and my fans enough for the support they have given me so far in this process. I’m eager to get through this recovery and back on the field to continue to do what I love.
The news comes as the Astros, 25-26 entering Saturday’s game against the Arizona Diamondbacks, have struggled to lock down a spot in the eight-team AL playoff field. They were just 6-12 in September and were holding down second place in the AL West, seven games behind the first-place Oakland Athletics and three games ahead of the third-place Seattle Mariners.
They were counting on Verlander’s return to the top of their rotation as a springboard into October, but now, if they make the postseason at all, they will feature a rotation headed by veterans Zack Greinke and Lance McCullers Jr., with José Urquidy and Framber Valdez in more prominent spots.
The loss of Verlander also calls into question whether the Astros’ championship window — which opened in 2017 with a World Series title later tainted by a sign-stealing scandal — has begun to close, if not slammed shut.
Several core members of the 2017-19 squads — which won three straight division titles and advanced to another World Series appearance last year — have regressed this season, with second baseman José Altuve (.601), third baseman Alex Bregman (.799) and shortstop Carlos Correa (.724) all down at least 200 points of on-base-plus-slugging percentage since last year. And outfielder George Springer, first baseman Yuli Gurriel and outfielder Josh Reddick are eligible for free agency in November. Greinke, ostensibly their ace heading into 2021, will pitch that season at 37.
Verlander, Altuve, Greinke and Bregman alone are due to earn $115 million combined in 2021.
Baseball has seen a rash of arm injuries to pitchers during a season that featured a nearly four-month shutdown in March because of the novel coronavirus pandemic and a shorter-than-usual ramp-up to an Opening Day in July. Stephen Strasburg of the Washington Nationals, Corey Kluber of the Texas Rangers and Shohei Ohtani of the Los Angeles Angels are among the pitchers whose 2020 seasons were affected (though Ohtani continues to play as a designated hitter).
That grim list also includes Verlander.
“I tried as hard as I could to come back and play this season,” Verlander said in a video statement accompanying his Instagram post. “Unfortunately my body just did not cooperate.”
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