May 30, 2024

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What's next for Jose Abreu and the Astros after the option agreement?

What's next for Jose Abreu and the Astros after the option agreement?

HOUSTON – The Houston Astros arrived in Mexico City looking for a clean slate. The pregame introductions before the series opener against the Colorado Rockies mimicked those on Opening Day, allowing Houston to throw out a forgettable first 26 games and start over.

Two wins over a miserable team wouldn't save the season, but the symbolism was appropriate. The team trying to create a turnaround has found an inflection point. One day after her discovery, the Astros acknowledged the biggest obstacle facing them.

On Monday afternoon at Minute Maid Park, Astros general manager Dana Brown, manager Joe Espada and several of their assistants met with Jose Abreu to answer the question that has eluded this franchise for much of the past 13 months.

“How can we get you back on track?” Brown wondered.

Other details of the meeting are scarce, but its outcome began over the course of Abreu's checkered tenure in Houston. Abreu has accepted a minor league option at the team's spring training facility in West Palm Beach, Fla., where he will report Wednesday in what amounts to a last-ditch effort to salvage a disastrous contract.

Abreu is a three-time All-Star who won the American League Rookie of the Year award in 2014, and six seasons later, he won the Most Valuable Player Award. He remains one of the hardest workers at the club and is loved by his teammates. By offering his consent to his demotion on Tuesday, he may have earned more respect from those within the organization.

“He put the team first, and as an organization, we want to win, but we want to take care of the people who wear those uniforms. That's exactly what we did as an organization,” Espada said. “We listened to him, and Jose said, 'Joe, I've got to do what's best for the team.' And I want to do what's best for me. He's a true professional, and the fact that he made that choice to get back to his level, I'm glad we're highlighting that because it meant a lot when he made that choice.

Abreu arrived in Houston in November 2022 on a three-year, $58.5 million contract — a reported free-agent acquisition for a franchise he rarely gets. At the time of his signing, concerns were rife within the industry about Abreu's fading power, but few could have predicted such a dramatic decline. Abreu is slashing .221/.280/.352 in 671 plate appearances as an Astro. According to FanGraphs, only two eligible players are worth fewer wins above replacement than Abreu's negative mark of 1.6 since 2023.

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The Cleveland Guardians and San Diego Padres aggressively pursued Abreu as a free agent at a similar price, but chose Houston, in part, because of its championship culture. The Astros' lack of activity at the top end of the free-agent market amplified their decision to sign Abreu. So was their lack of leadership in baseball operations during negotiations.

Owner Jim Crane oversaw the division after “parting ways” with World Series-winning general manager James Click earlier that winter. Tuesday's decision indicates that Crane is either not yet ready to admit defeat in a deal he made or has no interest in repaying the estimated $35 million still owed to Abreu.

Trying to extract any value from it in the meantime is mandatory. Brown and Espada echoed their optimism that Abreu could be saved despite some scary underlying numbers.

Abreu has put 54 batted balls in play this season. None were launched — with an exit speed of at least 98 mph and a launch angle of between 26 and 30 degrees. He boasts a .099 batting average, but a .124 expected batting average underscores just how poor his contact quality is.

Pitchers throw Abreu's fastball 63.8 percent of the time. He has five singles with an average launch angle of two degrees against them. Abreu is hitting ground balls at a rate of 50 percent and line drives at just 14.8 percent, 12 percent below his career average.

However, Espada said the team's “metrics” indicate that Abreu, 37, still has enough bat speed to succeed. Brown, a longtime scout, said he continues to see that as Abreu begins taking home batting practice.

“He has bat speed — his bat speed is still very good — we just have to get his timing right and get his rhythm right so he can do it consistently,” Brown said. “I still feel really optimistic about it. If the bat was slower, I would be less optimistic. But it shows the speed of the bat, it's just that he's so late in the trigger and timing that it's very off.


Jose Abreu will be under the supervision of Houston's minor league coordinators and will get to bat during extended spring training games. (Hector Vivas/Getty Images)

Espada said Abreu will have independence in “how to progress from day to day” during his time in West Palm Beach. Abreu will be under the supervision of Houston's minor league coordinators and will get to bat during extended spring training games. Whether he will go to an affiliate for the full season after that is unknown. So does any target date for his return, although Brown said: “We don't see that as a long-term thing.”

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Brown said he may travel to Florida himself to check on Abreu's progress. Hall of Fame first baseman Jeff Bagwell could make the trip, too, Brown said. Bagwell, who helped orchestrate the team's free-agent deal with Abreu, has worked with Abreu during pregame batting practice the past two seasons.

“We really want to do what is best for Jose,” Espada said. “We believe in his ability, we know he can hit. It was just trying to find the right time to do what was best for Jose and the organization, and I thought this was the right time to do it.”

In fact, Houston had no other choice. Espada did everything he could to hide Abreu's misery, whether it was dropping him to eighth in the batting order or making him part of a platoon with John Singleton. As long as Abreu remained on the active roster, Espada couldn't completely ignore him.

According to FanGraphs, the team entered Tuesday's game with a scoreless 1.4 wins above replacement from first base. No other major league team had worse production. “We need to get some production from first base,” Brown said Tuesday, offering the clearest statement of the season.

Singleton, prospect Joey Luperfido and utility man Mauricio Dupont were tasked with providing them. None of the three offer a guaranteed solution, but teams aren't supposed to have deep stock at a position where they invested $58.5 million in what is supposed to be an everyday player.

Loperfido is a natural outfielder who started 56 professional games at first base. He made his major league debut Tuesday in left field, the position he feels most comfortable playing than first base. The team believes Loperfido can handle some spot work at first base, but making him his starting position is a tall order.

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“It's just getting him more reps and getting him comfortable out there,” Espada said. “The pace here might be a little bit faster just depending on the stage, but the fact (is) he has all the tools, the ability and the IQ to do it — there's no doubt about that.”

Dupont made two starts at first base last season — after not playing that position since high school. Both Houston outfielders — Victor Caratini and Yaner Diaz — have major league experience at first base, but Espada said Tuesday “they don't seem like options to me” given how well both have performed behind the plate.

The most obvious scenario is to start with either Singleton or Loperfido against righties and Dubón against lefties. Houston will make a corresponding roster move on Wednesday for Abreu and could add either Trey Cabbage or David Hensley to the mix, but the situation will be a revolving door without Abreu.

No option is perfect, but Abreu also hasn't asked to appear in major league games. The team is mired in its worst start since 1969 and entered Tuesday 10 games under .500. Abreu's departure won't solve everything that ails the Astros, but it does remove an albatross from a lineup that should float this team wherever it intends to go.

“It's really hard to get a player back on track at the major league level,” Brown said. “You don't have time for the teaching that's going to be done, you can't get extra hits. You can't live with 0-for-4, 0-for-3 all the time. At some point, you have to get creative, and the only way we've been able to do that is with the option to bring it back.”

(Top photo: Erin Holley/Associated Press)