(editor’s note: since the publication of this article the Astros announced that Abreu has been added to the 26-man opening day roster.)
Astros fans likely have some level of familiarity with Bryan Abreu. He has made appearances in each of the last two big league seasons, totaling 12 innings across 11 appearances while accumulating a 1.50 ERA. That’s excellent run avoidance, particularly for a pitcher making his first big league appearances, and Abreu backed it up with 16 strikeouts. Coupled with the fact that his stuff is of an elite quality, the numbers might suggest that he’d be a slam dunk for a big league role entering this season, but until recently, that didn’t appear to be the case.
The reason for the Astros reticence to thrust Abreu into high leverage duty has been a simple, and common one- he hasn’t shown the necessary command and control to consistently succeed at the big league level. Even while he was racking up strikeouts in his tastes of the majors, he was missing the plate just as often, walking 10 batters across his 12 innings of work. This has been an issue for him throughout his professional career, though the hope has been that with time and experience he could locate better.
Such hopes have not been unfounded- while Abreu has always struggled with walks and lost pitches, there’s not a glaring underlying cause. He’s incredibly flexible and athletic, which usually helps pitchers command their stuff, and his delivery is far from complicated. The issues have arisen due to mechanical inconsistencies and overthrowing more than anything else, and those tend to be more fixable than a violent delivery or stiff body.
However, progress has been limited. While there have been some strides since Abreu’s early days in rookie ball, when he could seldom hit the broad side of the barn, he still has issues with pitch to pitch consistency as it pertains to both his location, and the shape on his breaking stuff. These issues were on full display in 2020, when Abreu walked 7 in just 3 and 1⁄3 big league frames, allowing only one run seemingly by the grace of God.
While our last look at Abreu prior to 2021 was especially ugly, it’s tempting to give the young righty a mulligan due to the extenuating circumstances. In a normal season, he would’ve been given some runway in Triple-A to tune up, never mind the potential impact of the pandemic on players’ mental game. It had been expected by many that he’d get that tune-up opportunity this year, with new Triple-A affiliate Sugar Land, but the release of Steve Cishek, and Abreu’s spring performance, have resulted in his selection for the Opening Day roster, confirmed by the Chronicle’s Chandler Rome.
Considering the difference in compensation between Abreu and Cishek, it is fair to wonder about the Astros’ motivations for making this move. Cishek, though awful in 2020, had been lights out in spring, giving his release the look of a cost-cutting move (he was slated to earn north of $2 million this season). The more charitable view is that the Astros were so enthused by Abreu’s perceived progress this spring that they felt he earned the job, and that’s not a completely outlandish suggestion. Abreu, though still a bit wobbly, has had a very strong showing down in Florida, completing 7 and 1⁄3 innings prior to today while striking out 6 against just 1 walk.
There is still work to do for Abreu to hit his potential ceiling, as the consistency issues re: location and shape are still present, if seemingly more subdued this spring, but it’s certainly true that his performance has raised eyebrows. He was particularly sharp in a 3-inning outing against the Mets on March 22nd, in which he didn’t allow a single baserunner while striking out four and landing some absolutely vicious breaking balls:
Bryan Abreu was perfect through 3 innings yesterday. He also had 4 strikeouts.— Michael Schwab (@michaelschwab13) March 23, 2021
Brent Strom talked about Abreu's growth this Spring and attributes it to his new focus. His velocity jumped from 89 last year to 95 this year.
Here are his 4 Ks yesterday. pic.twitter.com/CMJiyyFKQ2
We still haven’t seen really make full use of his entire arsenal, which includes two distinct breaking pitches with different velocities, and his fastball still isn’t as effective as it really should be given the raw juice on the pitch, but he looks to be repeating better and losing fewer pitches badly. He is likely to be an adventure in 2021, particularly early on, but he gives the bullpen added power and another arm that can go multiple innings (he has a starter’s background and has thrown at least two innings in each of his spring appearances). While Cishek would’ve been the higher floor option, Abreu has a chance to be the more dynamic weapon for a lower cost, making the decision a risky but high upside move.