Posted on March 9, 2020, by Bryan Zarpentine

Houston Astros Justini Verlander
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The Houston Astros lost one ace to free agency during the offseason and now they’ve lost another to injury during spring training. The team announced Monday that Justin Verlander has been diagnosed with a mild lat strain. Verlander has been shut down for the foreseeable future. With no firm timetable for his return a little more than two weeks until opening day, it seems likely that he’ll start the regular season on the Injured List.

Last year’s American League Cy Young winner was scheduled to pitch four innings on Sunday. Instead, he left his Grapefruit League start after two innings, hurting himself on the second-to-last pitch he threw. Despite originally being called a triceps issue, an MRI performed Monday revealed a mild strain of the latissimus dorsi muscle in Verlander’s back.

“Talking with doctors and looking at the scans, it’s definitely not worst-case scenario,” Verlander said of the injury. “Best-case scenario would be nothing. It’s just probably somewhere in the middle of that.”

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The 37-year-old Verlander also had a mild issue with his groin earlier in spring. Sunday’s start was just his second of the Grapefruit League season, pitching just 4.2 innings during that span. Even if the injury is quick to heal, Verlander would be far behind the normal schedule for a pitcher who’s planning on being ready for opening day. The silver lining is that Verlander had a similar injury leading up to the 2015 season and believes his current issue isn’t as serious.

“Scans can say a lot of stuff and MRIs can say a lot of stuff, but one of the most important things is how you feel physically,” Verlander said. “I’m trying to be very truthful with myself. I’m trying to recall also how I felt in ’15. I definitely feel better this time than then.”

With Gerrit Cole signing with the Yankees during the offseason, the Astros were counting on Verlander to be their undisputed ace this year. After going 21-6 with a 2.58 ERA over 34 starts in 2019, Houston isn’t worried about Verlander, as long as he’s healthy. His temporary absence will mean Zack Greinke, another longtime ace, will headline Houston’s rotation to begin the season and get the start on opening day.

Of course, the Astros have some serious questions about their rotation beyond Verlander and Greinke. Lance McCullers Jr. is penciled into one of the spots and is a proven starter. However, he’s coming back from Tommy John surgery and may not hit the ground running. Beyond him, a group that includes Jose Urquidy, Josh James, Austin Pruitt, and Framber Valdez will be counted on to fill the final two spots in the rotation. With Verlander’s status now up in the air, the Astros may need three of those largely unproven pitchers to begin the season in the starting rotation.

Whether he makes it back for opening day or not, the Astros will be fine as long as Verlander avoids a lengthy absence. That being said, it’s always discouraging to see your ace sidelined during spring training, especially if he’s closer to 40 than he is 30. With rotation depth being a mild concern for the Astros heading into the season, potentially missing Verlander for the early part of the season is an obstacle that could trip them up in 2020.

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