Justin Verlander injury latest caution flag for Houston Astros, MLB

In watching the opening weekend of baseball, what most stood out was how normal the television viewing experience felt. The piped-in crowd noise and cardboard cutouts in some ballparks certainly helped, as did the intensity of the players. Even without fans, they bat-flipped and fist-pumped and walked away dejectedly after crucial strikeouts. To a player, they have admitted that, yes, it's weird with the empty ballparks, but the competitive juices kick in, and it's still about trying to beat the other team.

Another normalizing aspect of this decidedly not normal season: Pitchers are going to get hurt. Reports broke late Sunday afternoon that Houston Astros ace Justin Verlander, the reigning American League Cy Young winner, will miss the rest of the season because of an elbow injury. Verlander disputed that report when he tweeted, "The report that I'm currently missing the rest of the season is not accurate. There is a forearm strain ... I'm hopeful that with some rest it will heal, and I'll be able to return soon."

As ESPN's Jeff Passan suggested, however, "forearm strain" tends to be code for elbow injury, so for now, we sit and wait. Missing Verlander for a couple of weeks isn't a big deal for the Astros, especially given the expanded 16-team playoff format. Missing him for the rest of the season, however, is a different matter.

The opening projections at FanGraphs had the Astros going 36-24, with the A's forecast as the second-best team in the AL West at 32-28. The new projections have been adjusted to account for just 29 innings from Verlander -- obviously, that's guesswork at this point -- and downgrade the Astros' win total to 35, with the A's for some reason also downgraded to 31 wins, despite going 2-1 against the Angels to open the season.

My predictions were a little more aggressive, pegging the Astros for 38 wins and the A's for 34 and giving the Astros even more margin for error than the projections over the rest of the American League (if not the A's). Last year, Verlander was worth 7.4 WAR in his 34 starts, which prorates to 2.6 WAR over the estimated 12 starts he would have received in the 60-game schedule. Even a replacement-level pitcher might mean only two or three fewer wins for Houston the rest of the season.

Still, there is a potential ripple effect on the Houston pitching staff, which is now minus three starters from its 2019 rotation: Verlander, Gerrit Cole and Wade Miley. Lance McCullers Jr. is back from Tommy John surgery and looked good in his season debut Saturday. Jose Urquidy projects to fill Miley's slot based on what we saw last year, but he was just cleared to resume baseball activities after being sidelined because of an undisclosed issue, so Josh James and Framber Valdez currently fill out the final two spots in the rotation. Bottom line: The Astros are down the top two finishers in the 2019 Cy Young voting. That's a huge blow no matter what the projections say.

After Sunday's loss to Seattle, Astros manager Dusty Baker said the injury happened early in Verlander's start. "He said he felt fine, and you see he was throwing the ball great," Baker said. "It was kind of a shock to all of us."

Verlander pitched six innings in the game, picking up the 226th win of his career.

Temporary replacement options include Cristian Javier, who made his major league debut in relief over the weekend. He had an absolutely dominant season in the minors last year, with a 1.74 ERA and 170 strikeouts in 113⅔ innings while holding batters to a .130 average. Scouting reports on Javier aren't as impressive as the numbers, though he's apparently very good at changing speeds on his fastball and clearly gets plenty of swing-and-misses from his slider and curveball -- at least against minor leaguers. He looks like a potential sleeper to me, much like Urquidy kind of popped up out of nowhere last year. Javier was stretched out in summer camp, so he is ready to start.

Forrest Whitley, the team's top pitching prospect, is back at the team's alternate training site, and he presents another option. Brad Peacock, who has started in the past, is on the injured list because of shoulder soreness, with no timetable for his return.

"It's not a pleasant situation to think about Verlander or thinking about how many young players we have in the bullpen and organization, but we'll go back to the drawing board," Baker said.

The long-term picture is simple. There is no need to rush Verlander back into action. With the Astros' powerful lineup -- which is still without Yordan Alvarez, who like Urquidy has just been cleared to resume baseball activities -- Houston can mash its way into the playoffs, and that's when it will need Verlander. A playoff rotation of Verlander, Zack Greinke, McCullers and a fourth guy can still win it all. Without Verlander, however, it becomes much more difficult to envision the Astros running the table.

Meanwhile, Rangers starter Corey Kluber left his season debut after just one inning because of shoulder tightness, and there will be suggestions that MLB rushed pitchers back into action. That ultimately is an opinion, impossible to prove, and several pitchers were already OK to pitch deep into games with regular pitch counts. In other cases, manager were cautious with quick hooks.

In Verlander's case, he has already defied Father Time, throwing more than 50,000 pitches in his career -- many of them at 100 mph or close to it. It's pretty remarkable that he has had just one previous stint on the injured list (in 2015, for a strained triceps). Over the past two seasons, he has thrown 7,762 pitches, including in the playoffs, easily the most in MLB. Former teammate Cole, with 7,358 pitches, is the only other pitcher with more than 6,900 pitches thrown.

Anyway, stay tuned. Now, back to your coronavirus updates ...