HOUSTON — When Houston manager A.J. Hinch called to welcome Justin Verlander to the team, the pitcher’s first question was when he’d make his debut for the Astros.
The answer is Tuesday at Seattle after the Astros orchestrated a last-minute deal with the Detroit Tigers on Thursday night to acquire the right-hander and bolster their rotation as they eye a deep playoff run in October.
General manager Jeff Luhnow said they’d been trying to get Verlander to Houston since late July, but weren’t able to pull it off until just before the deadline for having players eligible for postseason play.
“I was confident that we were going to get the deal over the finish line,” Luhnow said. “But obviously there were times I had my doubts even through the last 20 minutes or so.”
The trade gives the American League West leaders a powerful 1-2-3 punch at the top of their rotation with 2015 Cy Young Award winner Dallas Keuchel and Lance McCullers pairing with Verlander, who won the AL Cy Young and MVP awards in 2011.
“Justin Verlander is hands-down the best possible outcome that we could have had last night going into September,” manager A. J. Hinch said. “By the responses of our team we couldn’t be more excited to get him here, get him into our culture and see where he can help take us.”
The six-time All Star is a playoff veteran having appeared in the postseason five times. He is 7-5 with a 3.39 ERA and 112 strikeouts in 16 career starts in the playoffs.
The 34-year-old Verlander is 10-8 with a 3.82 ERA in 28 starts this season. The Tigers got minor league prospects outfielder Daz Cameron, right-hander Franklin Perez and catcher Jake Rogers as well as a player to be named later or cash in the deal.
Detroit also agreed to pay $17,355,191 to Houston, offsetting a portion of the $60,743,169 remaining Verlander’s contract, which calls for a $28 million annual salary. The Tigers give Houston $1,355,191 on Oct. 15 this year and $8 million on June 15 each year in 2018 and 2019.
Verlander had to agree to the deal as a player with both a no-trade provision and 10 years of service, including five with his current team.
Hinch said his motivation for wanting to join the Astros was simple.
“He’s been so successful in his career. The one thing missing is a World Series ring,” Hinch said. “So he let it be known to me right away that he wants to win, he wants to win here. He respects the success that we’ve had this season and the previous couple of seasons and he wants to do his part.”
The Tigers drafted Verlander in 2004 with the No. 2 overall pick. He won Rookie of the Year honors in 2006, when Detroit came out of nowhere to win the American League pennant. He led the AL with 19 wins in 2009, but his finest season came in 2011, when he went 24-5 with a 2.40 ERA. He also threw his second career no-hitter that season and led the Tigers to their first of four consecutive AL Central titles.
Verlander has been great lately after starting the season slower than usual, going 4-1 with a 2.36 ERA in six starts in August.
“He’s a competitor. He’s got tremendous experience. He’s got tremendous stuff,” Luhnow said. “He’s one of the few pitchers whose velocity goes up during the game. He’s been on an incredible roll here recently. Just a top-notch starter who’s pitching well right now and is the perfect addition to our team.”
The Astros returned home on Thursday after playing their scheduled home series with the Texas Rangers this week at Tropicana Field in St. Petersburg, Florida, because of torrential flooding in Houston in the wake of Hurricane Harvey. They host the Mets in a doubleheader on Saturday in what will be the first professional sporting event in the city since the storm. They hope their return can provide a much-needed boost to a city that is just beginning recovery efforts.
“We recognize our part in the healing,” Luhnow said. “So I think that having a team that’s on its way to hopefully a successful September and a long postseason run will give people in Houston a healthy distraction and something to think about amid all of the loss around them.
“So we’re hoping that Justin Verlander is another part of that.”