ASTROS OUTLOOK

With Abreu secured, Astros must address next million-dollar question(s)

Astros Michael Brantley
Will Uncle Mike get signed next? Composite image by Brandon Strange.
With Abreu secured, Astros must address next million-dollar question(s)

The Houston Astros have added another stellar bat to their already deep lineup with the signing of first baseman Jose Abreu to a three-year deal worth $58.5 million.

The 35-year-old Cuban native is second in Major League Baseball with 863 RBI since his rookie season in 2014 and won the 2020 American League MVP.

Last season with the White Sox, Abreu hit .304/.378/.446 and has a career .292 batting average.

So with Abreu now in the fold, what will the Astros do next?

His addition to the Astros seems to indicate the likely departure of Yuli Gurriel via free agency.

The former AL batting champion played well in the playoffs, but had a down year offensively in the regular season hitting .242/.288/.360.

Gurriel’s Gold Glove caliber defense isn’t to blame for his potential departure, but rather Abreu brings more to the plate and is three years younger.

Although Gurriel will be missed, Astros fans should be excited about the addition of another MVP.

Without changing the batting order, Abreu could take Gurriel’s spot behind Kyle Tucker and add more power and RBI to this already lethal lineup.

There is a possibility of Gurriel returning to a utility position, but Mauricio Dubón and David Hensley are both younger and more affordable options for that role.

Another free agent, Michael Brantley, has said he would like to return. Given the option between the two, Houston would benefit more from re-signing Brantley, who would fill an outfield need and continue to add production from the left side of the plate.

His leadership in the clubhouse is an asset to this team, and the Astros could certainly attempt to re-sign the 5x All-Star.

Although Houston has been linked to other free agents that include Michael Conforto and Cody Bellinger as potential outfield options, the Astros might already have a solution to fill that need.

Chas McCormick has proven himself to be a quality center fielder with World Series success, and if Jake Meyers could return to his 2021 form, he would be an excellent in-house option to fill that need without overpaying a free agent.

The Astros will continue to browse the free agent market, but could fill their voids with players already in their system as they have done in the past.

Houston has replaced Gerrit Cole, George Springer and Carlos Correa in consecutive years with All-Star caliber players such as Framber Valdez, Kyle Tucker and World Series MVP Jeremy Pena.

The Astros find ways to win by promoting from within, and signing free agents as necessary.

Abreu might be their biggest addition of the offseason unless a deal can be made to re-sign Justin Verlander.

If last season’s Cy-Young Award winner were to leave, the Astros’ rotation would still be in good hands with six potential starters.

Regardless of Verlander’s decision, Houston will continue to be the number one contender in the American League.

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The Astros are back in action Friday night against the A's. Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images.

The Astros need to whip up on the Oakland A’s this weekend in California as they did in sweeping four from them last week at Minute Maid Park. That was the start of a homestand which ended up with seven wins in 10 games. That goes down as a successful homestand, especially since it felt like the Astros’ prior winning homestand came while Donald Trump was President (it actually started in late July). Still, 7-3 doesn’t feel like a smashing success with it ending by dropping two of three games to the lowly Los Angeles Angels.

It is not exactly with bated breath that anyone should be waiting on Jose Abreu’s return to the lineup, but it’s coming. It should not be on this road trip. After the three games with the A’s the Astros move up the coast for a big four game set with American League West leading Seattle. The M's start all right-handed pitchers. That is no time to sit Jon Singleton to see if Abreu has managed to pump a few drops of gas into his tank while spending the better part of this month at the Astros’ minor league complex. It’s not as if Singleton has been stellar since Abreu’s departure, but by comparison, he’s been Lou Gehrig-esque. The series with the Mariners isn’t make or break but the Astros are strongly advised to get at least a split. That it should be Framber Valdez starting the opener Monday night doesn’t breed tremendous confidence, coming off his meltdown outing against the Angels. Another start, another opportunity.

The Mariners are at the Nationals this weekend, starting it a mere four and a half games ahead of the Astros. In four of the five other divisions the Astros' 22-28 record would have them at least 10 games off the lead.

One step forward, two steps back

Speaking of washed-up first basemen, Joey Votto should be a future Hall of Famer. The 40-year-old Canadian is trying to make it back to the big leagues via the minor leagues with the Toronto Blue Jays. Votto was an absolutely tremendous player with the Cincinnati Reds. As the Beastie Boys said, “Ch-check it out.” Over Jeff Bagwell’s first ten seasons with the Astros he hit .305 with a .417 on-base percentage and .552 slugging percentage, yielding a phenomenal .970 OPS. Over Votto’s first ten full seasons with the Reds: .313/.429/.540 for an exactly phenomenal .970 OPS. Where am I going with this? Read on!

Votto had phenomenal strike zone and bat control. He turned 30 during the 2013 season. That year Votto had 581 at bats. He popped out to an infielder once the entire season. Alex Bregman turned 30 the third day of this season. Bregman popped out to the shortstop four times in the Angels series. So much for Bregman’s “knob past the ball” epiphany that saw him hit three home runs over two games last week. Going into the weekend Bregman has one hit in his last 23 at bats. His season stats continue to be pitiful: a .209 batting average and .607 OPS. Bregman has only struck out once in the 23 at bats of his latest deep freeze. It’s that so much of his contract is feeble. There is a lot of season left for Bregman to build up to decent numbers, but one-third of the regular season will be complete after the Astros play the Mariners Monday night.

While Bregman’s season to date has basically been one long slump, Jose Altuve is in a funk of his own. Since blasting a homer Monday, Altuve is hitless in 12 at bats. Mini-slumps happen to everybody but Altuve’s woes trace back farther. Over his last 15 games, Altuve is batting .175. He last had more than one hit in a game May 5. He’s also drawn just two walks over those 15 games. It’s tough to ever sit Altuve, but he’s probably playing a little too much. Altuve turned 34 earlier this month. He has started 48 of the Astros 50 games at second base. Mauricio Dubon should be getting a start per week at second (and probably another at third given Bregman’s level of play). Over a full season not playing the field once per week still means 135 starts. Altuve should mix in some more at designated hitter (he has just one DH game so far this season). Wear and tear is a real thing, players don’t grow less susceptible to it as they get to their mid-30s.

King Tuck

On the flip side, Kyle Tucker! So far this season, he’s making himself as much money as Bregman is costing himself. Only Shohei Ohtani (1.069) starts the weekend action with an OPS higher than Tucker’s 1.060. The law of averages dictates that Tucker won’t finish as high as 1.060, but if he does, it would be the greatest full-length season offensive performance in Astros’ history. Jeff Bagwell posted an absurd 1.201 OPS in the strike-shortened 1994 campaign. Yordan Alvarez came in at 1.067 in his 87 games played rookie season of 2019. Lance Berkman’s 2001 was a monster. Enron Field was more hitter-friendly then than Minute Maid Park is now, but Berkman’s numbers were “Oh My Gosh!” spectacular. .331 batting average, 55 doubles (second in franchise history to Craig Biggio's 56 in 1999), 34 homers, .430 on-base percentage, .620 slugging percentage, and 1.051 OPS. And that was just Berkman’s second full season in the majors. Lance finished fifth in National League Most Valuable Player Award voting. Giant-headed Barry Bonds won MVP with his 73 home runs among other sicko stats.

* Catch our weekly Stone Cold ‘Stros podcast. Brandon Strange, Josh Jordan, and I discuss varied Astros topics. The first post for the week generally goes up Monday afternoon (second part released Tuesday) via The SportsMap HOU YouTube channel or listen to episodes in their entirety at Apple, Spotify or wherever you get your podcasts.

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