Astros’ flawed roster construction accentuated by another 1-run loss

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SAN FRANCISCO — Before bunting and bungling their way to the type of loss that has defined their season, the Houston Astros allowed José Abreu to take the game’s biggest at-bat. Two runners stood in scoring position and two were out in the ninth inning, the sort of situation Abreu once craved.

On the day Abreu became an Astro, team officials celebrated his career-long propensity to produce runs. It is an antiquated way to explain an analytical sport, but there is inherent value in employing someone who savors situational hitting. For the first nine years of his career, Abreu did.

Amid the 11th, the Astros would prefer almost anyone else to take an at-bat with a game in the balance. Manager Joe Espada pondered pinch hitting for the declining veteran but possesses a roster with precious few options.

Espada is not responsible for roster construction. General manager Dana Brown and his baseball operations department hand Espada 26 players he must put in advantageous positions. In no world is this iteration of Abreu facing San Francisco Giants closer Camilo Doval one of them.

Sending a rookie with 39 major-league at-bats to hit in Abreu’s place isn’t a sound solution either, but it’s the only alternative Espada encountered. The manager opted to save Joey Loperfido to pinch run for Abreu in an extra inning the entire ballpark knew loomed. Abreu’s strikeout only made it official.

Few hitters in the world are a favorable matchup against Doval, a man who saved a major-league-high 39 games last season, slings two darting fastballs that touch triple digits and generates a 42 percent whiff rate with one of the sport’s best breaking pitches.

Doval dominates too many menacing hitters to count. Yordan Alvarez began Monday’s ninth inning by swinging through one of his wicked two-strike sliders. That Abreu struck out against another and stranded two base runners should not be considered some cataclysmic failure.

That Houston does not have a roster equipped to avoid it is of more serious concern. Allowing Abreu to even take the at-bat against Doval is a byproduct of poor roster construction and a stubborn attempt to salvage a calamitous contract.

Losses like Monday’s invite wonder about how much longer the setup is tenable. Houston fell to 5-14 in one-run games, seven games under .500 and 7 1/2 games behind the Seattle Mariners in the American League West. Abreu did not lose the game by himself, but he managed to strand three runners in scoring position across four at-bats, all while hitting seventh in the order. Hiding him was impossible before his demotion and has proven no easier since his return.

For however long the Astros continue to carry Abreu, Espada cannot ignore him altogether. He is an active position player for a first-year manager who has shown a propensity to maneuver his bench and create platoon advantages late in games.

Espada has already given 37 pinch hit plate appearances across the team’s first 67 games. Houston took 82 pinch hit plate appearances all last season and 81 en route to winning the 2022 World Series.

Asked whether he considered pinch hitting for Abreu in the ninth inning of Monday’s game, Espada acknowledged he did. The reason he didn’t illustrate the imperfect situation in which he’s immersed.

“I have confidence in Abreu there getting a good at-bat against Doval,” Espada said. “And I needed to save an extra runner. I was very short on the bench also, not having some players available today.”

Espada operated Monday with a three-man bench of Loperfido, Jon Singleton and Trey Cabbage. Before the game, Espada claimed catcher Yainer Diaz would be available off the bench while nursing a sore right index finger.

That he never appeared in a game in which Espada exhausted all of his options suggests otherwise. Diaz isn’t an ideal option to hit against Doval — again, no one is — but inserting him would’ve afforded at least some semblance of an upside Abreu does not.

Espada burned Singleton to start the eighth inning, sending him to bat in Chas McCormick’s place against right-handed reliever Ryan Walker. Singleton stung a 101.3 mph line drive that Mike Yastrzemski laid out to catch in right field, robbing Houston of a hit it sorely needed while putting it at a marked disadvantage later in the game.

Conventional wisdom suggested Espada should save Singleton for the inevitability of pinch hitting for Abreu. McCormick slotted eighth in Houston’s batting order Monday, one spot ahead of Abreu.

Singleton made the first out of the eighth inning, meaning Houston was only guaranteed five more outs. After Singleton’s at-bat, Abreu’s spot in the batting order was seven spots away.

Singleton is now 1-for-27 in his career as a pinch hitter. He doubles as Espada’s best bat on the bench — another indictment of this curious roster construction. Using Singleton for a guaranteed at-bat as opposed to saving him for one that might never come is logical.

Still, the game found Abreu, as it has for all of this horrific season. An 0-for-4 night Monday lowered his season OPS to .371. He is 7-for-39 with 10 strikeouts since returning last month from the minor-league option he agreed to take.

Abreu’s salary, stature and steep decline have made him the face of Houston’s horrific season. He is not the sole reason this club is seven games under .500, nor should he shoulder all the blame for Monday’s loss.

For six innings, his teammates did nothing against Kyle Harrison, San Francisco’s rookie starter making his 21st major-league appearance. Jeremy Peña kicked a 10th-inning groundball a Gold Glove winner should field. Handed a two-run lead, reliever Rafael Montero retired one of the six Giants he saw in the 10th inning. A team spokesperson said Montero declined interview requests following the game.

In the fifth, McCormick struck out to strand Jake Meyers at third base. McCormick now boasts a .210 batting average and .543 OPS across his first 116 plate appearances.

If Houston is in search of a roster shake-up and still deadset on keeping Abreu, optioning McCormick to Triple A amid his struggles might be the most logical answer. Doing so would come cheaper than cutting Abreu and afford Loperfido the regular playing time Houston can’t seem to create for him.

Abreu preceded McCormick’s fifth-inning strikeout with a groundout to shortstop. It advanced  Meyers 90 feet to third base, an accomplishment given Houston’s season-long situational hitting futility.

When Abreu grounded out again in the seventh, it stranded Meyers at third base in a 1-1 game. Espada presumed it would be Abreu’s final at-bat. He guessed wrong and did not have the roster to recover.

(Photo of Chas McCormick: Jed Jacobsohn / Associated Press)

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