Astros ace Justin Verlander scheduled to begin minor-league rehab assignment Sunday

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HOUSTON — Astros ace Justin Verlander is scheduled to begin a minor-league rehab assignment with Triple-A Sugar Land on Sunday, manager Joe Espada revealed on Wednesday, offering the first timetable for Verlander’s return to the major-league rotation.

Verlander started the season on the injured list after reporting to spring training with what he described as a “hiccup” in his right shoulder. He’s thrown two live batting practice sessions at Minute Maid Park since the Astros departed West Palm Beach, including a 52-pitch session on Monday that he described as “a huge win.”

Verlander will throw a bullpen session on Thursday afternoon at Minute Maid Park and, presuming all goes well, will throw around 70 or 75 pitches during a Sunday matinee against the Las Vegas Aviators at Constellation Field. Last month, Verlander said he wanted to build his pitch count to at least 85 before returning to a major-league mound.

The team is optimistic Verlander will only require two minor-league rehab starts before returning to Houston’s rotation. Presuming he stays on a schedule of pitching every five days, Verlander could make his 2024 debut as early as April 17 against the Atlanta Braves at Minute Maid Park.

Verlander’s contract contains a $35 million option for the 2025 season that vests if he throws 140 innings this year, a threshold he still should be able to meet if he returns in mid-April. The Astros are only responsible for $17.5 million of that option, should it vest.

When Verlander does return, Houston could have a compelling rotation crunch to address. Ronel Blanco profiled as the odd man out, but after throwing a no-hitter on Monday, he may be given a longer look. The Astros have four off days from April 18-30, so a six-man rotation isn’t feasible.

Though he authored history on Monday, Blanco is still a veteran of eight major-league starts and more accustomed to pitching out of the bullpen. How Blanco performs in his next two starts could ultimately decide his fate. The first arrives Sunday against the defending World Series champion Texas Rangers on ESPN’s Sunday Night Baseball, another massive stage Blanco must master.

(Photo of Justin Verlander and Alex Bregman speaking with former Astros outfielder Michael Brantley: Troy Taormina / USA Today)

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