By KRISTIE RIEKEN AP Sports Writer
HOUSTON (AP) — Astros owner Jim Crane texted Justin Verlander with a simple message moments after they reacquired him Tuesday from the New York Mets in a blockbuster trade.
“I said: ‘Welcome back. We missed you,’” Crane said. “‘We’ll see you in New York. Hope you pitch well for us against the Yankees.’”
Verlander is back with Houston, rejoining the team he helped to two World Series titles, and expected to start Friday or Saturday in the Bronx.
In a tight race with Texas atop the AL West, the Astros shipped outfield prospects Drew Gilbert and Ryan Clifford to New York for the three-time Cy Young Award winner.
Crane told The Associated Press the Mets could send more than $50 million to the Astros to help pay off Verlander’s contract. The 40-year-old right-hander signed an $86.7 million, two-year deal with the Mets in December that includes a vesting option for 2025 at $35 million.
“(General manager) Dana (Brown) and his team worked on it hard,” Crane told the AP. “After we looked at the numbers — it’s always tough to give up prospects, but I think they determined that it was the right move. We needed starting pitching. He’s been throwing well. And I think the other factor is they ate a lot of the contract. So it wasn’t a really hard decision. It was just, would we give up enough prospects?”
The underperforming Mets dismantled the most expensive roster in major league history over the past few days. They dealt fellow ace Max Scherzer to the Texas Rangers in a trade announced Sunday and followed up Tuesday by shedding Verlander, among a flurry of other moves.
Veteran closer David Robertson, reliever Dominic Leone and outfielders Tommy Pham and Mark Canha also were sent packing since last Thursday.
Crane said he and Brown didn’t think there was any chance Verlander would be traded until Scherzer was dealt. After he was moved, the Astros figured they’d be a frontrunner if the Mets wanted to trade Verlander, too.
“We knew he had (the no-trade clause) and I think we felt strongly if given the opportunity, there were only a few landing spots and we were one of them,” Crane said.
Brown said once they learned the Mets were open to moving Verlander they put on a “full-court press.”
“We think he stabilizes our rotation,” Brown said. “We’re really fired up. … I had a chance to speak to Justin and he’s very excited about coming back.”
Crane believes his past relationship with the pitcher was important in making the deal.
“Justin and I always got along,” Crane said. “We’ve had direct contact with each other on a number of things. Certainly not this one, but I know him well, and every time he was here, we did what we said we were going to do. So I think he had some trust in coming back here, certainly. And he’s had great successes. So I think that certainly helped.”
Verlander earned his 250th career victory on Sunday, and 61 of those came with Houston. He was first acquired from the Detroit Tigers during the 2017 season, when he helped pitch the Astros to their first World Series title.
“It gives a boost to the fans,” Crane said. “It gives a boost to the locker room. I know (manager) Dusty (Baker) will be happy. So it’s a big day when you have your Cy Young guy come back.”
Baker couldn’t quit smiling as he discussed Verlander’s return Tuesday.
“It improves my heart’s function, you know what I mean?” Baker said. “And for a guy who’s had a stroke, heart function is very, very important. And that does my heart well.”
Verlander won his third Cy Young Award and second World Series championship with Houston last season, then became a free agent.
He opened the season on the injured list and struggled upon his return in early May. But he’s been back in top form recently, going 4-1 with a 1.49 ERA in his past seven starts. He’s 6-5 with a 3.15 ERA in 16 starts overall this season, striking out 81 in 94 1/3 innings.
Verlander signed a $66 million contract with the Astros in March 2019 that covered the 2020 and 2021 seasons. He was hurt on opening day of the 2020 season and made just one start in the two seasons covered by the deal before his brilliant comeback last year.
“The last contract he had was we were paying about $33 (million) and that didn’t work out so good,” Crane said. “But I think there was enough cushion in this one to make it palatable. And being in the position we’re at right now, a little weak on the starting pitching side, he will be a big anchor in there.”
The Astros have won the AL West in five of the past six seasons but currently trail the first-place Rangers by a half-game.
“It’s definitely going to provide a huge boost, not only energy-wise, but also just to be able to have a guy like him in here who’s been in here before. And we know how much he brings, not only to the mound but the clubhouse,” third baseman Alex Bregman said.
The Astros have managed to stay close to the Rangers despite dealing with a spate of injuries, including losing starting pitchers Lance McCullers Jr. and Luis García to season-ending injuries.
“We’ve lost a lot of key players to injuries,” Crane said. “But we’re used to being there. We want to stay there. So we want to get back, win the division and get in the playoffs.”
New York at one point had a projected payroll of $365 million bolstered by aggressive owner Steve Cohen, but the club entered Tuesday 50-55 and six games out of the final NL wild-card spot. Cohen paid off around $35 million remaining on Scherzer’s contract to facilitate the deal with the Rangers, which returned top prospect Luisangel Acuña, the younger brother of Braves star Ronald Acuña Jr.
Gilbert, 22, was a first-round draft pick by Houston in 2022 who ranks 68th on MLB.com’s Top 100 prospects list. He’s a potential five-tool player who dominated at Class A early this season — hitting .360 with a 1.107 OPS in 21 games — before slumping after a promotion to Double-A. He’s hitting .241 with six homers and a .713 OPS in 60 games at Double-A.
The 20-year-old Clifford was an 11th-round selection in 2022 whose stock has risen since. He’s hitting .291 with 18 home runs and a .919 OPS at two A-ball stops this season.
The Mets will send Houston around $35.5 million at least, covering a majority of the remaining roughly $57.5 million Verlander is guaranteed. New York will pay around $4.2 million this year and $31.3 million in 2024.
If Verlander pitches 140 innings next year and triggers his $35 million conditional player option for 2025, the Mets would pay another $17.5 million if Verlander exercises the option.
The Mets will save around $19 million in 2023 with the trade — $10 million in salary and $9 million in lowered luxury tax payments.