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Sports Illustrated
Sports Illustrated
Nick Selbe

José Abreu Signing Helps Astros Approach Evil Empire Status

When the Astros won their first World Series title in 2017, the front office opted to largely stand pat the following winter. The biggest contract Houston gave out was a two-year, $14 million deal to relief pitcher Joe Smith, a perfectly fine acquisition with an appropriately mundane name in keeping with this narrative.

With Monday’s signing of José Abreu, it appears Houston is going for a different title defense approach this time around.

As great as Yuli Gurriel was during this past postseason, the Astros addressed a glaring weakness by adding the 2020 American League MVP to its deep assembly of talent, making a strong statement that next season could bring MLB’s first repeat champion in 23 years.

For a team as loaded with talent as Houston, it’s still stunning to see how deep the pit of despair at first base was in 2022. Astros first basemen ranked dead last in the AL in fWAR last season (-1.4), as the team was either unwilling or unable to find a sufficient replacement—internally or externally—for the veteran Gurriel. The 38-year-old made 138 starts at first base in ‘22, with a brutal .242/.288/.360 slash line and just eight homers. His 84 wRC+ was the worst among 24 qualified first basemen, and he was also the worst defensive first baseman in the AL, per Statcast’s Outs Above Average.

Kamil Krzaczynski/USA TODAY Sports

Abreu singlehandedly plugs a hole in a roster with very few of them, as he’s been among the league’s most consistent hitters since his 2014 debut. He’s averaged over 650 plate appearances per year in each 162-game season of his career, never posting a wRC+ worse than 114. Though he’ll be 36 next year, his defense has remained at least adequate, an important factor considering Yordan Álvarez is best used sparingly in left field and should get the lion’s share of starts as the team’s designated hitter.

Abreu’s sharp decline in power output could be a sign of concern, particularly considering the team’s willingness to sign him to a three-year deal worth nearly $60 million that keeps him in Houston through his age-38 season. After logging five straight seasons with an isolated power mark of over .200, Abreu saw that number plummet to .141 in 2022—good for 97th among 130 qualified hitters and in the neighborhood of guys like Gio Urshela, Thairo Estrada and Tommy Edman.

However, that dip is likely the result of an altered approach rather than diminishing skills. Abreu made plenty of hard contact in 2022, ranking in the 93rd percentile in average exit velocity (92.2 miles per hour) and a 51.8% hard-hit rate. His expected slugging percentage (.486) also indicates some poor luck, and though his decreased average launch angle (8.0 degrees) won’t support an uptick in home runs, a more contact-based approach helped Abreu post a career-low 16.2% strikeout rate. All of that is reassuring that Abreu will continue to be productive as he ventures further into his late thirties—and a shift to Minute Maid Park should also help him improve on his 2022 total of 15 home runs.

Adding Abreu to the mix does not make the Astros a complete team. They could still use another outfielder, and there remains the issue of whether or not reigning Cy Young Award winner Justin Verlander will re-sign with Houston for his age-40 season. A Verlander return, combined with Abreu’s addition, would not make a veteran core any younger. But this level of commitment for a team coming off its second title in six years signals that the powers that be who run the Astros (who still don’t have a general manager following James Click’s departure) have their sights set on a title defense that’s been impossible to pull off since the turn of the century.

Not since the 2000 Yankees won the franchise’s third consecutive World Series has a team defended its championship. That was the peak of that era’s “evil empire” narrative, and given the Astros’ status as Public Enemy No. 1 among casual baseball fans, there’s no better team to break that drought.

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