HOUSTON — The Astros are approaching a crossroads at first base. No American League team is extracting less value from the position and only seven of the sport’s qualified hitters have a lower OPS than José Abreu, Houston’s winter splash now authoring the worst season of his impressive career.
Abreu signed the sort of free-agent deal this franchise isn’t inclined to give, a three-year, $58.5 million contract that ages worse with every unproductive plate appearance. Abreu’s taken 464 of them already and amassed a .234/.291/.343 slash line. Only four qualified American League hitters have a lower slugging percentage. Of the 15 other players worth at least negative-1 wins above replacement, according to Baseball-Reference’s calculations, only Abreu has taken more than 450 plate appearances.
After a 1-for-4 showing on Wednesday night raised his OPS to .634, Abreu alerted the team’s training staff to a sore lower back, a problem manager Dusty Baker later acknowledged has lingered for “a while.” Abreu has 23 hits in his past 122 plate appearances. Nineteen of them are singles.
Abreu underwent an MRI on Friday afternoon after the team returned to Houston. According to Baker, Abreu was being examined by team physicians prior to Houston’s series opener against the Angels and, thus, not available for comment. Though Baker did not rule out a stint on the injured list, the skipper said initial results of Abreu’s MRI did not “appear too serious.”
“I could tell that something was wrong,” Baker said on Friday. “He wasn’t using his legs, which is connected to the lower back, where the pain is. I could just sort of tell the way he was swinging, the way he was moving. Hopefully they can get that subsided and he can get back to being Abreu.”
Baker and many around the Astros have maintained that optimism all season. Mid-August is arriving and a more sobering reality must be recognized. The Astros are in a fight for the American League West and must act like it each night. Keeping Abreu in the everyday lineup does not align with that mission.
An outburst on Friday from fill-in first baseman Jon Singleton only accentuated that sentiment. In his second start since being summoned from Triple A, Singleton struck three hits, among them two home runs. Abreu does not have a multi-home run game this season. Of the 110 in which he’s appeared, Abreu has only had three hits in four of them.
Yet, before Singleton’s stunning return, Baker did not sound like someone ready to abandon Abreu as an everyday player. He’ll be forced into it if Abreu requires a stint on the injured list, but the manager bristled somewhat at the thought of a timeshare between Abreu and either Singleton, Yainer Diaz, or Mauricio Dubón.
“The other guys that are playing first haven’t shown that they have earned that yet, either,” Baker said. “You just can’t give it to them. We’re not in the experimenting (business). We’ll see how that goes before we start talking about timeshare or whatever. You have to figure out who you’re sharing time with and how they’re doing. We have to make a determination on how they’re doing first before we do any discussions on a timeshare.”
For the 103rd time in his stop-and-start major-league career, Singleton started at first base during Friday’s series opener against the Angels. For the first time in 2,935 days, he hit a major-league home run — a 390-foot missile into the second deck of right field seats off Angels starter Reid Detmers. Twenty-six minutes later, he launched a second, a surreal start to Singleton’s full-circle reunion with the Astros. At the very least, he offered the type of first impression that will increase Baker’s inclination to play him.
“Hopefully I can just be a piece of the puzzle,” Singleton said after the 11-3 win. “It felt great. It was a long time coming.”
Baker hasn’t seen much of Singleton at the major-league level and, for some reason, has appeared reluctant to play Diaz at first base all season. His comments on Friday arrived as no surprise, especially as a manager who has a reputation of trusting veteran players.
Take last season, when Baker started beloved veteran Yuli Gurriel 138 times at first base despite a .647 OPS and .288 on-base percentage. Houston had the benefit of a large division lead and Gurriel’s Gold Glove-caliber defense, both of which masked Gurriel’s ghastly offensive production.
Abreu does not have those luxuries to lengthen his leash. The Astros awoke on Friday 2 ½ games behind the Texas Rangers in the American League West and, according to Sports Info Solutions, worth negative-2 defensive runs saved at first base as a team. Baker is more measured than most managers, but even he must recognize some urgency is required with 45 games remaining.
That Baker played Singleton at first base behind ace Justin Verlander on Friday suggests he views the 31-year-old former top prospect as the team’s best defensive option. Baker is insistent that he play Houston’s best defensive lineup behind both Verlander and Framber Valdez, who induces more ground balls than any American League starter.
Singleton started at first base on Thursday behind rookie Hunter Brown — who is second to Valdez in groundball rate among American League starters. If Singleton is, indeed, Baker’s preferred defensive option, it stands to reason he could start when either Verlander, Brown or Valdez pitch.
Singleton may provide Baker some semblance of defensive assurance, but in parts of three seasons, Singleton has not demonstrated he can consistently hit major-league pitching. For the moment, Friday’s outburst must be treated like the found money it is, and if Singleton proves observers wrong, then re-assess. For the moment, if Baker wants to deploy his most potent lineup, Diaz needs to be in it. Diaz entered Friday’s game with the highest slugging percentage of any American League rookie and a .901 OPS in his past 180 at-bats. In 134 plate appearances at either first base or catcher, Diaz has a 1.041 OPS and 180 wRC+. When Diaz is DHing — as he did on Friday — he has a .589 OPS.
“I think he has the qualities to be an average defender. Right now, the lack of experience might hold him back a little bit, but he does have the qualities to play there and make plays and make the plays we expect him to make,” said bench coach Joe Espada, who coaches and positions the team’s infielders.
“He’s athletic enough where, once you give him experience, he’ll figure some stuff out. We have talked enough about situations, but it’s not the same once you get there and know how to react on a ball hit in that 4-3 hole or a cut and relay or balls in the dirt or a popup behind first — all the small things that are fundamentals. Unless he goes out there and gets more time and reps, that’s when we’ll have a better grasp of how good he can be.”
If Abreu is out for any period of time, the team could have a chance to gauge it. Even if Abreu avoids the injured list, it stands to reason that the time has passed for some form of a platoon system. Baker often brings up Diaz’s struggles against left-handed pitching — albeit in a minuscule sample size — and Singleton bats left-handed.
Playing Abreu against left-handed pitching and some combination of Diaz and Singleton against right-handed pitching seems like a logical path forward.
If Baker does not want to abandon Abreu entirely, he could DH on days Diaz or Singleton is at first base, but it’s clear some form of a shakeup is needed — even if Baker hesitated to acknowledge it. Houston has extracted negative-1.3 wins above replacement from first base, according to FanGraphs. No American League team is worse.
“If you have a guy at first base that can’t catch, it’s going to cost you a bunch of runs. And if you got a guy that can catch, it’s going to save you a bunch of runs. This is not a one-sided game. You have to play both sides of the ball,” Baker said.
“Singleton, he just got here. Dubón’s played sparingly, a couple innings over there. Diaz really hadn’t had any experience over there other than a couple plays here and there. It’s tough to learn a position in the big leagues. Nobody’s really had the opportunity to earn much because Abreu’s been out there most days.”
It’s worth wondering how much longer he will be.
(Top photo of Singleton: Thomas Shea / USA TODAY)