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What’s next for the Astros with Justin Verlander out?

The Justin Verlander 2020 season can end after one start.

The Astros’ bait will come out “for a few weeks” due to a forearm strain after throwing in Friday’s opener, manager Dusty Baker told reporters on Sunday. As the shortened regular season lasts only nine weeks through September 27, a shutdown followed by rehabilitation will leave little time for Verlander to be ready to play in games later in the season.

And that assumes that Verlander has only two weeks off before resuming throwing. Baker said the team will re-evaluate the pitcher after that time. “We don’t know,” said Baker, answering a question about whether Verlander will pitch again this season. He added that the injury was a “shock” to everyone.

Verlander denied a previous report from the Houston Chronicle, who mentioned two sources with knowledge of the situation, that he would miss the rest of the season.

Baker said the tension arose when Verlander pitched in the Astros’ 8-2 victory over the Mariners; the manager also said that Verlander reported feeling “fine” but also that his arm was “tender.” Verlander threw 73 throws (48 strokes) over six innings. He underwent an MRI exam on Saturday, Baker said according to the Chronicle.

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Verlander underwent surgery to repair a groin injury in March, but was considered healthy for the summer camp.

The Astros were the heavy preseason favorites to win the AL West and would drive Verlander deep into the playoffs. The postseason plan is now in jeopardy, but the expanded 2020 playoff field means that Houston is still to come. This is what the club can do in the short term to stay on track.

Justin Verlander injury: how the Astros can compensate for this

Make sure that Lance McCullers Jr. and Zack Greinke can keep it up. McCullers from Tommy John and Greinke’s operation showed a slower than normal speed on his first start, which lasted only 3 1/3 innings. They each go up one spot in the rotation with Verlander out. While the season is only 60 games, Houston needs to look longer and keep those two ready to handle heavier loads in October.

Lean on the back of the rotation to absorb the slack. The fourth and fifth starters of the season were Josh James and Framber Valdez. Jose Urquidy (illness) is far from finished. James and Valdez pitched well as rookies in 2018 but deteriorated in 2019. If they can now regularly throw deep into matches, the Astros may not skip a beat.

Replace Verlander’s place with openers and bullpen games. Houston put 15 pitchers on the 30-man Opening Day roster and can bring in other pitchers from its alternate training site. There are 13 pitchers once the rosters have been adjusted to 26 at the end of August. Byran Abreu, Cristian Javier and Brandon Bailey are among the active pitchers who could initially play a ‘bulk’ role. Austin Pruitt, who took on the role while pitching for the Rays, was able to take over after getting off the injured list. Brad Peacock is said to be another candidate, but he is on the IL with shoulder pain.

Get Forrest Whitley up to speed. The fireball prospect has slowly been taken to the camp as he returns from the shoulder fatigue that helped ruin his 2019 minor league season. He still had an average of 12.97 strikeouts per nine turns last year, showing how much of a weapon he can be if he’s right.

Exchange for a pitcher. This will be difficult as teams face grid uncertainty due to COVID-19 testing. But if a team drops out of the race early, it may save an arm before the August 31 deadline. A more likely scenario is that the Astros draw a free agent, take him to their alternate location, and then prepare him for normal work.

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