José Abreu released by Astros

HOUSTON — In what Astros manager Joe Espada described as a “very tough day,” the Astros on Friday made a move that was inevitable. The club released veteran first baseman José Abreu not even halfway through the three-year, $58.5 million deal he signed with Houston in November 2022.

That means the Astros will have to pay the remaining $30 million on Abreu’s contract, but his presence in the lineup was a growing issue, especially for a team that began Friday eight games back in the American League West and six games out in the AL Wild Card race. Abreu, 37, had a .362 OPS with two homers in 35 games with the Astros.

“It was not an easy conversation,” said Espada, who was among a contingent that traveled to Abreu’s home in Florida to help lure him to Houston a year and a half ago. “What José Abreu has meant to this organization helped us get to another Championship Series last year. What he’s done in this game, it was not easy.”

Astros general manager Dana Brown, who was hired after the Abreu signing, said he and Espada met with Abreu on Friday afternoon to deliver the news.

“We’ve been talking about it over the last week or so,” Brown said. “Ultimately, Abreu is an outstanding human being. He’s had an outstanding career. We tried different things to get him going, like sending him down. As we talked through the process this week, we felt like it was time to make a change.”

Espada and Brown said Jon Singleton and utility player Mauricio Dubón will platoon at first base, with Singleton likely starting against right-handers and Dubón likely against lefties, such as Friday, when Dubón was at first base against Tigers lefty Tarik Skubal.

“Right now, it’s just time to move on and we have guys here to take over that spot, and we need those guys to step up and produce for our lineup,” Espada said.

Abreu was an extremely popular player in the Houston clubhouse. When he signed with the Astros, Abreu joked he already had most of his new teammates’ numbers saved in his phone.

“It’s devastating,” Dubón said. “He’s a good clubhouse guy. Obviously, he seems quiet around [the media], but he’s very vocal in team meetings, giving advice and giving his time to young players and how he views the game. … Watching him go, it’s a gut punch for the clubhouse.”

Abreu was so invested in trying to turn his season around that he agreed to be optioned to the Minor Leagues in early May following a woeful start in which he slashed .099/.156/.113 in 22 games. He reported to the team’s facility in West Palm Beach, Fla., and worked out for a couple of weeks before getting at-bats in the Florida Complex League and playing in two games at Triple-A Sugar Land.

The Astros were hopeful the adjustments Abreu made with his swing would turn his season around, but it didn’t happen. He slashed .167/.186/.333 with two home runs in 13 games after rejoining the Astros on May 27. Abreu was 0-for-7 in two games against the Giants this week, and with the Astros slipping in the AL West standings, they couldn’t afford to keep playing him.

“He understood what his struggles were,” Brown said. “He struggled a lot and was trying to battle through. That was one of the reasons why he allowed us to send him down for three weeks. It was a difficult thing for him. I thought he handled it well. We tried everything. It wasn’t about him not working his tail off.”

Abreu joined an Astros team that was coming off a World Series championship and replaced the popular Yuli Gurriel at first base. The signing seemed to be a perfect fit considering the Astros were a veteran team with high expectations, and Abreu was two years removed from winning the 2020 AL Most Valuable Player Award.

Instead, Abreu had a stunning offensive decline throughout his time in Houston, though he did get hot last September and during a postseason run that ended with a Game 7 loss to the Rangers in the ALCS. In 176 games for the Astros, he hit .217 with 20 homers and a .625 OPS.

“It got to the point where this is the direction we needed to go,” Espada said.

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