THE PALLILOG

If you need even more validation of Astros championship formula, consider this

If you need even more validation of Astros championship formula, consider this
José Abreu looks like a bargain for the Astros. Composite image by Brandon Strange.

Tuesday marked 79 days before the Astros open their regular season March 30 against the Chicago White Sox. What’s the big deal about 79 days? Nothing, but it creates a segue to digging deeper on the Astros’ big free agent acquisition of the offseason. That is first baseman José Abreu who will become the first Astro ever to wear number 79 in a regular season game. Aside: three players have worn number 99 for the Astros. If you can name all three you are either A. a cheater or B. an Astros savant of the highest echelon. Answer at the end of the column.

At the point the Astros signed José Abreu, going to three years at 19 and a half million dollars per season for the soon-to-be 36-year-old seemed a bit long and pricey. Now after the drunken sailor spending in so many other places this offseason, three years 58.5 mil for Abreu seems a bargain. It certainly will be if he produces at his recent level of performance. Should Abreu drop off mildly from his 2022 showing, he’d still be a marked offensive upgrade over Yuli Gurriel. La Piña tumbled over and down the hill last season though at least he delivered some in the postseason. Still, Abreu’s average offensive season over his eight big league seasons is better than Yuli’s best season. Abreu’s home run power dropped off sharply in 2022. In fact it was cut in half: 30 homers in 2021, just 15 last year (and with 35 more at bats). Concerning? Sure. But while the power declined, his batting average and on base percentage improved. Abreu’s .301 average combined with a career high 62 walks gave him an outstanding .378 OBP. Yuli is the better defensive first baseman of the two (Jose Altuve, Jeremy Peña, and Alex Bregman may all have moments where they think “Yuli would have saved me an error on that one.”) but Abreu is no clod there. Unless he falls off a cliff, the rich get richer with Abreu succeeding Gurriel.

Presuming Jeremy Peña gets to pick up where he left off in the batting order (second), Abreu may slot in the six spot behind Altuve, Peña, Yordan Alvarez, Bregman, and Kyle Tucker. That’s one heck of a six-hole threat. In 1268 career starts with the White Sox, no manager ever wrote in Abreu lower than fifth in the batting order (and only six times did he bat fifth).

Father Time gets all who battle him until the end, but until we see it happen, Abreu can be counted upon as a durable and productive performer. Frame of reference time. Carlos Correa (how about the way his free agent ship sailed?) has been on a big league roster for a full-length season six times. In only two of them has he played 136 or more games. José Abreu has eight full-length seasons on his resume, in only two of them has he played fewer than 152 games.

No shortage of Abreus in Houston

The best baseball-playing Abreu of all-time (Bobby) began his career with the Astros, the second best (José) looks to end his career with them. After his explosion to excellence last seat season, Astros’ reliever Bryan Abreu seems in a good spot to be the third best ever Abreu. There have been nine Abreus to make it to the Majors.

Wild stuff

Astros number 99 wearers. The first was “The Wild Thing” Mitch Williams. After having a 43 save season with the 1993 Phillies end with his giving up Joe Carter’s World Series-ending home run, Williams was dealt to the Astros. His Houston tenure was brief and worse than miserable. A 7.65 earned run average with 24 walks allowed in 20 innings pitched got Williams released less than two months into the season.

Two seasons later Furr High School grad and ex-Houston Cougar Anthony Young finished his big league career pitching for his hometown team. Young holds a crummy Major League record it’s hard to see being broken. Over two seasons with the New York Mets in 1992 and ’93 Young lost 27 consecutive decisions. After battling an inoperable brain tumor Anthony Young died tragically young at 51 in 2017.

The most recent Astro number 99 would be only be recalled by his relatives. Some of his relatives. Rudy Owens made the start on the mound for the Astros May 23, 2014 at Seattle. He took the loss after giving up five earned runs in five and two-thirds innings. That was the first and last big league game in which Rudy Owens pitched.

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The Astros have their work cut out for them. Composite Getty Image.

Through 20 games, the Houston Astros have managed just six wins and are in last place in the AL West.

Their pitching staff trails only Colorado with a 5.24 ERA and big-money new closer Josh Hader has given up the same number of earned runs in 10 games as he did in 61 last year.

Despite this, these veteran Astros, who have reached the AL Championship Series seven consecutive times, have no doubt they’ll turn things around.

“If there’s a team that can do it, it’s this team,” shortstop Jeremy Peña said.

First-year manager Joe Espada, who was hired in January to replace the retired Dusty Baker, discussed his team’s early struggles.

“It’s not ideal,” he said. “It’s not what we expected, to come out of the shoot playing this type of baseball. But you know what, this is where we’re at and we’ve got to pick it up and play better. That’s just the bottom line.”

Many of Houston’s problems have stemmed from a poor performance by a rotation that has been decimated by injuries. Ace Justin Verlander and fellow starter José Urquidy haven’t pitched this season because of injuries and lefty Framber Valdez made just two starts before landing on the injured list with a sore elbow.

Ronel Blanco, who threw a no-hitter in his season debut April 1, has pitched well and is 2-0 with a 0.86 ERA in three starts this season. Cristian Javier is also off to a good start, going 2-0 with a 1.54 ERA in four starts, but the team has won just two games not started by those two pitchers.

However, Espada wouldn’t blame the rotation for Houston’s current position.

“It’s been a little bit of a roller coaster how we've played overall,” he said. “One day we get good starting pitching, some days we don’t. The middle relief has been better and sometimes it hasn’t been. So, we’ve just got to put it all together and then play more as a team. And once we start doing that, we’ll be in good shape.”

The good news for the Astros is that Verlander will make his season debut Friday night when they open a series at Washington and Valdez should return soon after him.

“Framber and Justin have been a great part of our success in the last few years,” second baseman Jose Altuve said. “So, it’s always good to have those two guys back helping the team. We trust them and I think it’s going to be good.”

Hader signed a five-year, $95 million contract this offseason to give the Astros a shutdown 7-8-9 combination at the back end of their bullpen with Bryan Abreu and Ryan Pressly. But the five-time All-Star is off to a bumpy start.

He allowed four runs in the ninth inning of a 6-1 loss to the Braves on Monday night and has yielded eight earned runs this season after giving up the same number in 56 1/3 innings for San Diego last year.

He was much better Wednesday when he struck out the side in the ninth before the Astros fell to Atlanta in 10 innings for their third straight loss.

Houston’s offense, led by Altuve, Yordan Alvarez and Kyle Tucker, ranks third in the majors with a .268 batting average and is tied for third with 24 homers this season. But the Astros have struggled with runners in scoring position and often failed to get a big hit in close games.

While many of Houston’s hitters have thrived this season, one notable exception is first baseman José Abreu. The 37-year-old, who is in the second year of a three-year, $58.5 million contract, is hitting 0.78 with just one extra-base hit in 16 games, raising questions about why he remains in the lineup every day.

To make matters worse, his error on a routine ground ball in the eighth inning Wednesday helped the Braves tie the game before they won in extra innings.

Espada brushed off criticism of Abreu and said he knows the 2020 AL MVP can break out of his early slump.

“Because (of) history,” Espada said. “The back of his baseball card. He can do it.”

Though things haven’t gone well for the Astros so far, everyone insists there’s no panic in this team which won its second World Series in 2022.

Altuve added that he doesn’t have to say anything to his teammates during this tough time.

“I think they’ve played enough baseball to know how to control themselves and how to come back to the plan we have, which is winning games,” he said.

The clubhouse was quiet and somber Wednesday after the Astros suffered their third series sweep of the season and second at home. While not panicking about the slow start, this team, which has won at least 90 games in each of the last three seasons, is certainly not happy with its record.

“We need to do everything better,” third baseman Alex Bregman said. “I feel like we’re in a lot of games, but we just haven’t found a way to win them. And good teams find a way to win games. So we need to find a way to win games.”

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