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Looking Deeper Into José Abreu’s Signing And Payroll Factors

MLB: ALDS-Chicago White Sox at Houston Astros Thomas Shea-USA TODAY Sports

For the first time since the 2017 season, the Astros, effective next year, will have a starting first baseman not named Yuli Gurriel. It feels weird typing out that sentence as the 38-year-old Cuban has become one of the faces of the franchise during this so-called golden era of baseball in Houston. While it is certainly possible that the organization retains him in some utility capacity, the reported signing of free-agent slugger José Abreu effectively concludes that particular chapter of Gurriel's career with Houston as a full-time regular.

At first glance, the reported three-year, $60 million contract makes a fair amount of sense for both sides. The Astros acquire one of the best-hitting first basemen over the last nine seasons with Abreu, who hit .304/.378/.446 with a 137 wRC+ with the White Sox in 2022. This kind of production from first base was sorely missing most of the season, as evidenced by the combined 76 wRC+ posted by Gurriel, J.J. Matijevic, and Niko Goodrum. It wasn't a good omen when the only club with arguably worse production across an entire season at first base than Houston was the Pirates, with a woeful 59 wRC+. It isn’t a surprise that Pittsburgh also improved at first base in recent weeks by acquiring Ji-man Choi from the Rays and signing free-agent Carlos Santana. Even if Abreu is somewhat of a downgrade defensively at first base — it depends on the exact defensive metrics of choice, which are noisy even on a good day — the change was honestly warranted.

Abreu now finds an excellent chance to make multiple deep postseason runs during his contract. Considering his overall batting profile in terms of contact and improving plate discipline over the past two seasons, the soon-to-be 36-year-old should fit in nicely with his new lineup. He should also benefit from the Crawford Boxes as a right-handed hitter to some degree. He also lengthens a lineup that felt one hitter too short at times following Michael Brantley's season-ending injury, even during a championship season.

Of course, multi-year contracts carry varying amounts of risk, some higher than others, and Abreu's deal is no different. The fact that the Astros had to offer a third year with a $19.5 million AAV when Abreu reaches his age-38 season is something to remain mindful of in the future. While I don't anticipate a precipitous offensive decline even by that final season, there are indicators we shouldn't ignore outright. For example, his decline in power this year is possibly tied to his struggles against four-seam fastballs, specifically against 95 miles per hour or higher velocity. Whereas he slightly overperformed against four-seam fastballs 95 miles per hour or higher in 2021 (.366 wOBA/.348 xwOBA), Abreu underperformed against the same offerings in 2022 (.318 wOBA/.354 xwOBA). This decline is even more pronounced when viewed through isolated power, with a .226 mark in 2021 compared to .085 last season against those same fastballs. This issue in power could be related to a noticeable change in the average launch angle against four-seam fastballs in general. Bat speed related, perhaps?

However, Abreu’s batted ball profile remained more than respectable in 2022, with exit velocity readings and hard hit rates ranking in the upper echelon of qualified hitters. He arguably overperformed in terms of BABIP last season (.350 compared to a .327 lifetime average), but I wouldn’t expect too much regression in this regard. But if four-seam fastballs, especially those with higher velocities, continue giving him issues in 2023, then I guess we shouldn’t be completely off-guard. Of course, Abreu’s track record does provide some confidence that he can right the ship unless age is finally sneaking up on him in terms of bat speed.

Regarding payroll complications, Abreu’s contract is pretty straightforward, with a $19.5 million AAV in each of his three seasons. Depending on how the slugging first baseman ages, his production could warrant that kind of financial commitment if history is any guide. But clubs often find themselves paying for past seasons instead of looking forward, so I remain a bit nervous about that third year, especially if this power decline becomes increasingly evident in the meantime. That said, I do like Abreu’s offensive profile more than I initially thought when the agreement was announced, and I am becoming more optimistic that a prolonged decline in power isn’t quite as imminent as it first appeared. Also, there are instances when you have to overpay a bit for free agents; thankfully, it is only a three-year pact rather than four or five.

The Astros, per RosterResource, now have a projected payroll of roughly $198 million for next season. Including Abreu’s average annual value for tax threshold purposes, Jim Crane now has approximately $35 million in space to spend before incurring any penalties. It feels increasingly likely that Houston is willing to move on from Justin Verlander, considering his expected asking price of at least $30 to $35 million per season. The final annual figure could be even higher as the Dodgers, Yankees, Mets, Braves, and Astros have all expressed interest in his services. In other words, a bidding war is certainly possible. If Houston has additional plans to address the outfield and perhaps a utility player, then I don’t see how they can fit Verlander into next year’s budget if Crane is hellbent on remaining below the initial tax threshold. Remember that the Astros exceeded the initial tax threshold only once in 2020, and the monetary penalties were ultimately negated due to the pandemic-shortened season.

Regardless of Verlander’s upcoming decision, Houston did well to sign Abreu to an ultimately acceptable contract, even if it could become an overpay by Year 3. The goal of this pact is to maximize their chances of winning in the next two seasons, and the slugger enhances those chances.