Joey Loperfido returns to Astros with clear path to regular playing time

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ANAHEIM, Calif. — The logjam that led to Joey Loperfido’s demotion has disappeared. Injuries and ineffectiveness have invaded the overcrowded outfield Loperfido couldn’t crack last month. His return to the Houston Astros this weekend prompts wonder whether the club is preparing him for a more pronounced role.

“There are more opportunities for him to get more everyday at-bats with the position we’re in right now,” manager Joe Espada said before Saturday’s game against the Los Angeles Angels.

Fourteen days ago, none existed. Jake Meyers had morphed into a middle-of-the-order force just as Chas McCormick’s right hamstring healed. Jon Singleton swatted mammoth home runs just as José Abreu started the last chance to salvage his Astros career. The circumstances left no place for Loperfido to play.

Team officials did not want to stunt Loperfido’s development by stowing him on the major-league bench, leaving Espada to demote a prospect he acknowledged “has done enough to stay at the major-league level.”

The next six or so days may determine if Loperfido can. Kyle Tucker’s slow recovery after fouling a pitch off his shin freed a roster spot for Loperfido, who joined the team on Saturday as Tucker hit the injured list.

Tucker’s injured list stint is retroactive to Tuesday, meaning he is eligible to return as early as June 14. Tucker himself acknowledged that date as his goal for activation. Whether he can actualize it is another matter.

Tucker is still walking with crutches and unable to put much pressure on his right leg. On Saturday, Tucker said he hoped to ditch his crutches by Sunday and resume baseball activities during the team’s upcoming series in San Francisco.

Tests revealed just a bone bruise, Tucker said, but both he and Espada have acknowledged the entire process is going slower than the club anticipated. Expecting it to suddenly accelerate may be misguided — as would rushing back the team’s best hitter.

When Tucker is ready for activation, the Astros’ decision on which position player to demote will offer a glimpse into their true thinking of Loperfido’s place in the hierarchy. Houston had another chance to summon him last week when Grae Kessinger went down to Triple A, but called up Trey Cabbage instead — perhaps understanding that playing time would be sparse.

Now, for however long Tucker is out, Loperfido should stand to receive far more regular playing time than he did during his first stint in the major leagues. Loperfido took just 39 at-bats and made 12 starts across those 25 games.

None arrived at first base, where Houston has its most glaring hole. Following his demotion, Loperfido started three of his nine Triple-A games at first, but Espada still seemed hesitant to expose him there at the major-league level. On Saturday, Loperfido said he hasn’t had any conversations about playing first base at the major-league level.

“I think if there’s an opportunity to put him at first, I will do it,” Espada said on Saturday. “But right now, looking ahead, not immediately. I could see him playing first base in the major leagues.”

If first base remains out of the question, Loperfido must become a factor at all three outfield spots. Yainer Diaz’s resurgence could complicate matters if Espada wanted to utilize Loperfido at designated hitter, but there are at-bats to take there, too.

Loperfido did not start on Saturday opposite Angels southpaw Tyler Anderson, but neither did Houston’s two other left-handed bench bats: Singleton and Trey Cabbage. Espada deployed an all-right-handed hitting outfield of Mauricio Dubón in left, Meyers in center and McCormick in right.

Dubón is best utilized as a utilityman, spelling some of Houston’s everyday infielders or spread around all of the three outfield spots. His presence won’t prevent Loperfido from securing more playing time. Meyers’ and McCormick’s will, forcing Espada to make some fascinating decisions across the next week.

Loperfido’s first call-up coincided with the most magnificent stretch of Meyers’ career. He slugged .571 and sported a .996 OPS across 80 plate appearances that made it impossible for Espada to remove him from the starting lineup.

Meyers awoke on Saturday with 12 hits in his past 62 at-bats. Eleven of those hits were singles. Before tripling in his first at-bat on Saturday, McCormick had mustered two singles in his first 23 at-bats off the injured list. One of them was a bunt.

“I think performance matters,” Espada said. “We’re trying to win games and I’m trying to get some of these guys going offensively. I’m looking for the best matchups for these guys to put them in a position to succeed and try to get them going.”

Spelling one or both struggling outfielders is the most clear path to playing time for Loperfido. Meyers is the best defensive center fielder of the bunch, but Tucker’s absence leaves right field vacant for Loperfido or McCormick. Left field isn’t accounted for, either, though Yordan Alvarez may start there behind ground-ball pitchers Hunter Brown and Framber Valdez.

Both Cabbage and Loperfido hit left-handed, meaning Espada could create a natural platoon in both corner outfield spots with Dubón and McCormick, but a more instructive path may involve playing Loperfido daily to gauge his long-term viability on a major-league roster.

“You guys know how I feel about when you get young players up here: The best way to get them to perform is to play them,” Espada said. “They need to play for us to figure out the present and future of a particular player. Right now, where we’re at, I think there will be more opportunities.”

(Photo: Robert Edwards / USA Today)

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