April 20, 2024

Astros ace Justin Verlander faces ‘tight’ timeline to be ready for Opening Day

WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. — Houston Astros starter Justin Verlander is prioritizing prudence with his right shoulder during his spring training progression, leaving his status for Opening Day in doubt.

“We still got some time, obviously it’s tight, but things are progressing,” Verlander said on Sunday. “It’s the same (mindset) as I’m doing my rehab right now, which is day by day. We’re not even looking a week out or two weeks out, so it’s kind of hard to forecast anything past that.”

Verlander, 41, is in the final guaranteed season of the two-year, $86.6 million contract he signed with the New York Mets in 2023. The deal does contain a $35 million vesting option for 2025, but only if Verlander throws 140 innings in 2024. The Mets are responsible for $17.5 million if that option does vest, adding another layer of intrigue to Verlander’s availability early in the season.

On Feb. 14, the day pitchers and catchers held their first workout, Verlander said he was “two or three weeks behind” his normal schedule due to a “little hiccup” in his right shoulder. Verlander started last season on the injured list with a low grade teres major strain near his lat, but said on Sunday his current situation is “very” different.

“It feels pretty good. I wouldn’t say (there is) discomfort. It’s just not completely loose, which is probably normal for a buildup like this,” Verlander said. “Slowly kind of tapping the ceiling and bumping up intent and volume pretty much every time I touch the mound. Every day I touch the mound has been progression.”

Verlander has thrown three full bullpen sessions since full-squad workouts began, but it is unclear when he may face hitters for the first time. Ordinarily, pitchers will throw at least one or two live batting practice sessions before appearing in a spring training game.

“The goal is for JV the next time he gets on the mound is to just increase his intensity and see if we can just start mapping out maybe facing some live hitters at some point,” Astros manager Joe Espada said. “I’m not going to speculate (on Verlander’s readiness for Opening Day), but I think his next bullpen and his next few days will determine that.”

Verlander made five Grapefruit League starts during his prior, healthy spring trainings in 2018, 2019 and 2023, but it’s clear he won’t reach that benchmark this spring. Whether he would begin the season on the active roster while still in the buildup phase — perhaps a start or two behind schedule — remains a mystery.

“(I am) bouncing back pretty good. I guess everything is going the way that I would like,” Verlander said. “I’m trying to stay out of my own way a little bit and not overdo things — really listen to the trainers and the guys that are there to pull the reins a little bit. Trying to listen to them.”

Verlander is throwing only fastballs and changeups off the mound, though he has spun a few sliders while playing catch on flat ground. Verlander cautioned against reading too much into his lack of offspeed pitches.

“I looked back on some seasons I had in the past and you get so caught up nowadays with all these guys throwing a bajillion miles per hour in December and I haven’t picked up a ball yet. You kind of feel like you’re behind,” Verlander said.

“I was recalling some of my past spring trainings and there were years I didn’t throw offspeed until my second or third start. I was kind of having that game plan again — not trying to overdo it. I wouldn’t say that’s a big red flag or anything.”

Days are dwindling, though, and it may force Verlander to change course.

“I started spinning some (sliders) on flat ground a few days ago just because, now, I kind of need to so that if I start getting in games soon or start facing batters, obviously I want to be able to throw it,” Verlander said, “because I don’t have time to start saying ‘I’ll start messing with it in games.’”

(Top photo of Justin Verlander: Scott Taetsch / Getty Images)