REALITY CHECK

Exploring 3 viable options for Houston Astros five-alarm fire at first

Astros Jose Abreu
Jose Abreu looks lost at the plate. Composite Getty Image.

It’s a long baseball season, sure the Astros have started 4-8, and there are plenty of fingers to point around. But there’s no need to push the panic button.

Not yet.

Last year, the Astros didn’t start much better – they were 5-7 after a dozen games. It just seemed different, though. Nobody was wringing hands over the slow start. After all, the Astros were the defending World Series champions, coming off a 106-win season and figured to make mincemeat of the American League West again. Business as usual.

This year is different. The Astros are losing games in very un-Astros-like fashion. While the starting pitching has been surprisingly fine, at least the starters healthy enough to take the field, the bullpen has been a mess. The back end relievers, supposedly the strongest in all of baseball, have been disappointing. Bryan Abreu’s earned run average is 5.79. Ryan Pressly’s ERA is a sky-high 11.57 and closer Josh Hader, the best shutdown in the bigs, is at 6.00. The Astros are losing games late.

The Astros starting rotation is comprised mostly of seat-fillers. The Astros are sitting in the doctor’s waiting room for Justin Verlander, Framber Valdez, Jose Urquidy, Luis Garcia and Lance McCullers to be declared fit for battle. McCullers’ contribution to the team in recent years has primarily been confined to H-E-B commercials.

Impatient fans and copy-hungry media need a target to blame for the Astros’ slow start and they’ve zero’d in on first baseman Jose Abreu.

For good reason. Abreu, 37, a former American League MVP, is being paid 19.5 million this year and next. He is having a miserable time at the plate. Originally slated for No. 5 in the batting order, now dropped to No. 7 and sinking in the west, Abreu is hitting a paltry .088. But that number actually is deceptively positive. He has three hits (all singles) in 34 at bats, with 12 strikeouts, no home runs and no RBI. Frankly one of Abreu's singles was a pity hit from a friendly scorekeeper who could have given Royals shortstop Bobby Witt Jr. an error on Abreu’s weak grounder Tuesday night.

We can go all-analytics and brain-busting stats to explain Abreu’s troubles at the plate. But let’s use simple baseball language: Abreu is horrible. He’s done. Maybe it’s time for the Astros to cut bait. He is untradeable.

Abreu had a disastrous 2023 season, batting .237, the lowest average of his 11-year career. But after 12 games last year, he was hitting .271, not bad at all. Or as Larry David would say, pret-tay, pret-tay, pre-tay good.

This year he’s fallen off the end of the Earth. Fans groan as he swings meekly at breaking balls outside the zone. Or he fails to catch up to 95 mph-plus. Or he can’t connect on low inside pitches. Look, when you’re batting .088, it’s all bad.

Last year, the Astros actually had two, as Little Leaguers put it, automatic outs in the lineup. Abreu hit .237 and catcher Martin Maldonado blasted .191.

This year, it’s a tight battle between who’s the worst of the worst. Maldy is hitting .091 with two hits in 22 at bats and no RBI for Abreu’s old team, the Chicago White Sox. Abreu is hitting .088 for Maldonado’s old team, the Astros. This could go down to the last week of the season.

If Abreu is still with the Astros at season’s end. The Astros are no longer the high exalted dominant force in the American League West. They can’t afford an .088 hitter in the lineup. They can’t play eight against nine.

It didn’t help when manager Joe Espada recently said, “I got a ton of confidence in Abreu. I'm not going to talk about strategy. José Abreu has been a really good hitter for a very long time, and I have 100 percent confidence in José that, at some point, he's going to start hitting.”

How long is at some point? Didn’t Astros fans go through this last year with manager Dusty Baker refusing to sit Maldonado despite Maldy killing rallies in a tight pennant race?

The Astros don’t have a strong support system, especially backing Abreu at first base. But there are options. Mauricio Dubon is a jack of all trades. He could play first. Despite the funny line in Moneyball, first base statistically is the easiest position to play in baseball. Backup catcher Victor Caratini can fill the gap until the Astros sign a free agent first baseman.

Or the Astros could do something that would light a fire under fans: call up rookie Joey Loperfido, who’s belted five homers and driven in 13 RBI in 10 games for the Sugar Land Space Cowboys.

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Astros defeat the A's, 6-3. Photo by Richard Rodriguez/Getty Images.

Jake Meyers hit a three-run homer to highlight Houston's six-run fourth inning that backed Justin Verlander's winning start, and the Astros beat the Oakland Athletics 6-3 on Friday night.

Verlander (3-2) struck out nine over six innings to increase hit total to 3,377, passing Hall of Famer Greg Maddux (3,371) for 10th on the career strikeouts list. He gave up two runs — one earned — on eight hits and didn't walk a batter for a second straight start and seventh time this year.

After another milestone to add to a long list of them, Verlander wasn't sure exactly how to feel.

“I feel like I should be more excited but I feel like I’m a little more introspective and reflective,” Verlander said. “A lot of sacrifices you make in this game, a lot of time away from the family, but I love it, so it’s pretty amazing. I don’t know if as a 21- or 22-year-old kid in professional baseball if I’d thought I’d be in the top-10 in anything. This sport’s been around for so long. Hard to put into words, but a lot of thoughts, a lot of thoughts went through my mind.”

When his teammates celebrated him once the special outing had ended, Verlander allowed himself to ponder the meaning.

Verlander remembers his first strikeout and he recalls one against Hall of Fame slugger Frank Thomas here at the Coliseum — and the pitcher wears No. 35 because of Thomas.

“I have a lot of great memories here,” he said.

A's manager Mark Kotsay, a former Oakland outfielder, has been witness to some of those.

“He’s just tough. He’s a Hall of Fame pitcher. He knows his game plan and he executes it really well," Kotsay said. "He doesn’t make a ton of mistakes.”

Yordan Alvarez added an RBI double and Josh Hader finished the 2-hour, 31-minute game with his seventh save for the Astros, who began a seven-game road trip.

After right-hander Ross Stripling (1-9) retired the first nine Houston hitters in order, Jose Altuve singled to start the fourth for the first of four straight hits that included Alex Bregman's two-run single.

The A's drew an announced crowd of 9,676 for the series opener after winning two of three against Colorado following an eight-game losing streak.

Miguel Andujar came off the injured list and immediately hit an RBI single in the first off Verlander and finished with three hits in his A's and season debut — including another run-scoring single in the seventh.

Andjuar's RBI marked the first time the A's have scored first in 18 games — ending the longest streak in franchise history. Batting cleanup, he also singled in the third.

Astros left fielder Chas McCormick robbed Max Schuemann of an extra-base hit when he crashed into the wall to make a great catch ending the eighth.

“That was a big play at the moment,” manager Joe Espada said.

TRAINER’S ROOM

Astros: RHP José Urquidy was pulled from his rehab start with Triple-A Sugar Land because of right forearm discomfort. He has been on the injured list with inflammation in his pitching shoulder. ... 1B José Abreu is scheduled to rejoin the club Monday in Seattle after playing at least two games with Triple-A Sugar Land as he works to regain his hitting rhythm.

Athletics: Andujar had been sidelined all season after having meniscus surgery on his right knee. He was claimed off waivers from the Pirates on Nov. 6. Oakland created roster room by optioning INF Brett Harris to Triple-A Las Vegas.

UP NEXT

RHP Spencer Arrighetti (2-4, 7.16 ERA) pitches for the Astros in the middle game opposite A's LHP JP Sears (3-3, 4.31).

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