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Maybe the Astros Off-Season Wasn’t Such a Disaster After All

Re-thinking Abreu, Javier, and Montero

MLB: ALDS-Houston Astros at Minnesota Twins Jesse Johnson-USA TODAY Sports

The Astros won the AL West yet again. OK, only by tiebreaker, and only by winning 90 games, the fewest the team has won since 2016.

Of course, we know the injuries: Altuve, Alvarez, and Urquidy out for large chunks. No McCullers, Almost no Garcia.

But as the Astros struggled to regain the kind of dominance we’ve come to expect here in Houston, much of the ire about the team’s diminished production has been pointed at three players: Joe Abreu, Cristian Javier, and Rafael Montero. These three players were signed to expensive long-term contracts, so the ire wasn’t just about their 2023 performances but how their contracts would affect the Astros’ success in the long term.

Of course, the root of the concern was/is their 2023 performances. And no one could say that looking at the season stats for these three players, their performances were anything but disappointing.

Jose Abreu came to Houston at $19 million a year for three years to play first base at age 36. He was a career 133 wRC+ hitter and the heart and soul of the Chicago White Sox. At the time of the signing, I don’t remember anyone complaining about the acquisition since first base is pretty much a black hole in the organization.

No sugar-coating his season. His WAR is negative. His wRC+ below average at 86 at a position where you expect better-than-average slugging.

But does that mean that Abreu was a mistake? I’d say it’s too soon to tell. After returning from the IL with a back problem that may have been nagging him all season, from August 26 until the end of the season, Abreu was back to himself, hitting 137 wRC+ with eight home runs and 33 RBI. I would submit that possibly adjusting to a new team and a new environment may have affected him as well, and as the slump continued, the mental stress got worse.

In any case, Abreu’s late surge was crucial to the Astros eking into the playoffs, and his performance in the ALDS, 1.058 OPS, would be the talk of all baseball except for Yordan Alvarez slashing .500./538/1.667 with four homers. Yeah, that 1.667 isn’t OPS. That’s just slugging.

Who’s Ohtani?

Everything about Abreu looks “right” right now, including two 440’ homers yesterday, but also including his swing and his confidence. Maybe first base isn’t a black hole for the next two years after all.

Ok, the pitchers.

I don’t remember anyone complaining about the five-year, $64 million extension for Cristian Javier when it was announced this winter. But when Javier collapsed this summer, with an ERA north of 6.00 since July, everyone started pointing fingers.

And who wouldn’t? The Astros paid for a guy with a 2.54 ERA in 2022 and a 3.05 career ERA. Peripherals predicted some regression, but nothing like the 4.56 ERA of 2023. Or the seeming collapse from July-August.

But September offered some hope at just the right time. The ERA dropped to 4.11 with one scoreless outing on the last day of the season that wrapped up the Division title. And another superbly-pitched, crucial one-run game against mighty Baltimore that resulted in a 2-1 walk-off win. Remember, the Astros won the division in a tie. During September, we saw Javier’s K% get back to where it needs to be, 32.3%, up from 23.1% for the season before September.

And we definitely saw the El Reptil the Astros paid for in the almost indispensable Game 3 ALDS yesterday. Ice ran through his veins, overcoming horrible umpiring calls and yet working through numerous jams with clutch strikeouts, holding the Twins scoreless with nine K’s while allowing only one hit. In three playoff appearances, he’s only allowed two hits total.

Like Abreu, it’s too soon to give up on Javier despite some mid-season horror shows.

Now Montero. His signing was controversial at the time. And I’d say it remains the most problematic. He was an important part of a bullpen that was an indispensable part of the 2022 champion Astros. But it was only one of two years in Montero’s 10-year career where he posted an ERA of less than 4.00. Yet he got a three-year, $33.4 million contract.

This year was a nightmare, with a 5.08 ERA compared to last year’s 2.37. But there are a few silver linings. His peripherals predicted something closer to a 4 ERA, and his HR/FB ratio was an astronomical 15.3%. His BABIP was also high at .358. Both these figures indicate a degree of bad luck in a small sample. After July 1, Montero’s ERA was back down to 2.91, with peripherals in the mid-3 range. Not unlike his 2022 performance.

Pitchers, especially relief pitchers, are mercurial performers. We can hope that first-half Montero was an aberration and that for the rest of his contract, he can be at least close to as good as he was in 2022.

And let’s hope all of these guys continue their progress in the playoffs all the way to a repeat championship.

Go Stros.