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What’s next for José Abreu and the Astros after option agreement?

Written by on May 1, 2024

HOUSTON — The Houston Astros arrived in Mexico City seeking a clean slate. Pregame introductions before their series opener against the Colorado Rockies mimicked those on Opening Day, allowing Houston to flush a forgettable first 26 games and start anew.

Two wins against a wretched team won’t salvage the season, but the symbolism felt fitting. A team trying to author a turnaround had found an inflection point. One day after discovering it, the Astros acknowledged its biggest impediment.

Monday afternoon at Minute Maid Park, Astros general manager Dana Brown, manager Joe Espada and many of their lieutenants met with José Abreu to answer the question eluding this franchise for most of the past 13 months.

“How can we get you back on course,” Brown wondered.

Other specifics of the meeting are scarce, but its outcome started a clock on Abreu’s star-crossed tenure in Houston. Abreu accepted a minor-league option to the team’s spring training facility in West Palm Beach, Fla., where he will report Wednesday for what amounts to a final attempt at salvaging a calamitous contract.

Abreu is a three-time All-Star who won American League Rookie of the Year honors in 2014 and, six seasons later, an MVP award. He remains one of the club’s most diligent workers and is beloved by teammates. By offering his consent for a demotion Tuesday, he might have earned even 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 this uniform. That’s exactly what we did as an organization,” Espada said. “We listened to him and José said ‘Joe, I have 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 took that option to get his game back, I’m glad that we’re highlighting that because it meant a lot when he took that option.”

Abreu arrived in Houston last winter on a three-year, $58.5 million contract — a heralded free-agent acquisition for a franchise that rarely gets them. At the time he signed, concerns were rampant within the industry about Abreu’s fading power, but few could have foreseen a decline this dramatic. Abreu is slashing .221/.280/.352 in 671 plate appearances as an Astro. According to FanGraphs, only two qualified players are worth fewer wins above replacement than Abreu’s negative-1.6 mark since 2023.

The Cleveland Guardians and San Diego Padres heavily pursued Abreu as a free agent at a similar price point, but he chose Houston, in part, for its championship culture. The Astros’ lack of activity at the higher end of the free-agent market magnified their decision to sign Abreu. So did their lack of baseball operations leadership during the negotiations.

Owner Jim Crane oversaw the department after “parting ways” with World Series-winning general manager James Click earlier that winter. Tuesday’s decision suggests Crane is either not yet willing to admit defeat on a deal of his own doing or had no interest in paying down the estimated $35 million Abreu is still owed.

Trying to extract any value from him in the meantime is mandatory. Brown and Espada echoed optimism that Abreu can be salvaged despite some dreadful underlying numbers.

Abreu has put 54 batted balls in play this season. Not one of them has been barreled — with an exit velocity of at least 98 mph and a launch angle between 26 and 30 degrees. He boasts a .099 batting average, but an expected batting average of .124 just underscores how poor his quality of contact remains.

Pitchers are throwing Abreu fastballs 63.8 percent of the time. He has five singles with an average launch angle of 2 degrees against them. Abreu is hitting groundballs at a 50 percent clip and line drives at just a 14.8 percent rate, more than 12 percent lower than his career average.

Still, Espada said the team’s “metrics” suggest Abreu, 37, still possesses enough bat speed to succeed. Brown, a longtime scout, said he still sees it while Abreu is launching home runs in batting practice.

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


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

Abreu will have autonomy for “how to progress from one day to another” during his time in West Palm Beach, Espada said. Abreu will be under the supervision of Houston’s minor-league coordinators and get at-bats during extended spring training games. Whether he will go to a full-season affiliate afterward is unknown. So is any target date for his return, though Brown said, “We don’t see this as a long-term thing.”

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

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

In reality, Houston had no other choice. Espada had done everything in his power to mask Abreu’s misery, be it by dropping him to eighth in the batting order or making him a part of a platoon with Jon Singleton. As long as Abreu remained on the active roster, though, Espada couldn’t afford to ignore him entirely.

According to FanGraphs, the team entered Tuesday’s game extracting negative-1.4 wins above replacement from first base. No other major-league team had worse production. “We need to get some production out of first base,” Brown said Tuesday, offering the season’s most obvious statement.

Singleton, prospect Joey Loperfido and utilityman Mauricio Dubón are tasked with providing it. None of the three offers a foolproof solution, but teams aren’t supposed to have depth stockpiled at a position where they’ve invested $58.5 million in what is supposed to be an everyday player.

Loperfido is a natural outfielder who has started 56 professional games at first base. He made his major-league debut Tuesday in left field, a position he is far more comfortable playing than first base. The team believes Loperfido could handle some spot work at first base, but making it his primary position is a tall ask.

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

Dubón started twice at first base last season — after not playing the position since high school. Both of Houston’s catchers — Victor Caratini and Yainer Diaz — have major-league experience at first base, but Espada said Tuesday “they don’t look like options to me” given how well both are performing behind the plate.

The most straightforward scenario would be starting either Singleton or Loperfido against right-handed pitching and Dubón against lefties. Houston will make a corresponding roster move Wednesday for Abreu and could add either Trey Cabbage or David Hensley to the mix, but the position will be a revolving door without Abreu.

No option is ideal, but neither was asking Abreu 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 does remove an albatross from a lineup that must buoy this team to wherever it intends to go.

“It’s really difficult to get a guy back on course at the major-league level,” Brown said. “You don’t have the time for the teaching that is going to take place, you can’t get extra at-bats. You can’t live with the 0-for-4, 0-for-3 all the time. At some point, you have to get creative, and the only way we were going to be able to do that is option him back.”

(Top photo: Erin Hooley / Associated Press)

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