With José Abreu no longer an everyday player, what are the Astros’ plans for first base?

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With José Abreu no longer an everyday player, what are the Astros’ plans for first base?

Attempts to hide José Abreu’s decline are impossible, but Joe Espada still attempted it Wednesday. The Houston Astros’ first-year skipper slotted the struggling slugger eighth in his starting lineup against the Kansas City Royals.

Abreu had never batted lower than seventh in the 1,422 major-league games he played before this one, but after a conversation with Espada, understood the rationale. The team is mired in its worst start since 2011 and scoring runs is a chore. Houston started the season slashing .229/.292/.313 in its first 128 plate appearances with runners in scoring position.

Preventing Abreu from adding to the misery seemed to be Espada’s foremost goal, but the game seems to find those who struggle. Abreu took each of his first three at-bats with runners in scoring position. During the first, he bounced into a 6-4-3 double play, ending a threat that could have staked Spencer Arrighetti to an early cushion in his major-league debut.

Abreu struck a sacrifice fly and struck out in the subsequent two at-bats, continuing a brutal beginning of the season that must prompt serious questions about how much longer the Astros can continue playing Abreu daily.

Across the next two days, an answer might have arrived. Abreu did not start Thursday’s series finale against the Royals or Friday’s series opener against the Texas Rangers. If he is injured or dealing with any nagging soreness, no one within the organization has revealed it. Abreu participated in pregame warmups before both games and was available off the bench.

Benching Abreu isn’t an elixir. His backup, Jon Singleton, finished Friday’s game 1-for-4 with a walk. He is now 5-for-23 this season and boasts a lifetime .603 OPS across 160 major-league games. That Espada started Singleton on April 7 and replaced him late in the game with Abreu suggests the team views Abreu — worth minus-2 defensive runs saved so far this season — as a better defensive option.

Prospect Joey Loperfido has started at first base in four of the past six games at Triple-A Sugar Land, perhaps illustrating the urgency with which Houston is trying to acclimate him to the position. Abreu, it should be noted, has started fewer games at first base in that same span.

Loperfido, who turned heads throughout spring training, hit three more home runs on Friday and leads the minor leagues with nine. Presuming he’ll carry the power over during his first stint in the major leagues is a gamble — and it’s worth noting that Loperfido struck out in 19 of his first 45 Triple-A at-bats this season — but Houston might soon have no choice but to see what he can offer a sputtering major-league team.

Abreu’s status as an everyday player is disappearing, even if Espada did not want to acknowledge it. Abreu has started four of Houston’s past eight games — a span in which the team also had a scheduled off day. Espada also pinch hit for Abreu on Tuesday in the 10th inning of a game with a tied score, the latest sign yet of the team’s deteriorating trust in its $19.5 million first baseman.

José Abreu’s disappointing start comes after a strong spring training when he hit .308/.419/.500 in 10 games. (Tim Warner / Getty Images)

“I’ve had multiple conversations with José,” Espada said Friday. “He’s trying. He’s working his tail off. I know that he cares and he wants to do well and he wants to do (his) best for his team and he’s going to continue to get those opportunities. The conversations are ongoing every single day with him.”

How uncomfortable they become might hinge on Houston’s play across the next few weeks. Sinking any further under .500 will increase urgency and might make it more difficult for the Astros to play Abreu in any capacity.

Thirty-seven at-bats is a minuscule sample from which to draw conclusions, but Abreu’s first season in Houston inspired little confidence that this is an anomaly. He slashed .237/.296/.383, numbers buoyed by a resurgent September. That Abreu hit four home runs during the Astros’ 11-game playoff run shouldn’t be forgotten, either — perhaps a sign there is still something in his 37-year-old body.

Abreu has a history of slow starts — his .742 OPS in March/April is almost 100 points lower than his career .838 clip — and he authored a similarly awful April last season. His team, however, managed a 14-12 opening month. Barring something astonishing, this season’s team will not, inviting wonder about how many more opportunities Abreu will get.

No precedent exists for owner Jim Crane to eat Abreu’s massive contract, and doing so would be acknowledging a failure all his own. Crane had already “parted ways” with James Click and was overseeing Houston’s baseball operations department when Abreu signed the three-year, $58.5 million free-agent contract. According to Baseball Reference, Abreu has been worth -0.9 wins above replacement across the life of that deal.

Abreu has three singles and 13 strikeouts in his first 37 at-bats of the season. None of his hits has left the infield. His last one, hit at Kauffman Stadium, should have been scored as an error on Royals shortstop Bobby Witt Jr.

Abreu has a 16 percent hard-hit rate, is whiffing at a 38.3 percent clip and has averaged an 85.1 percent exit velocity on the 25 balls he’s put in play. He averaged an 89 mph exit velocity last season — down 2 mph from his career average — inviting wonder about whether age has sapped his bat speed.

“I think he’s got some timing issues,” Astros general manager Dana Brown told the team’s flagship radio station this week. “I thought about the bat speed thing, but when I saw him launching balls in the seats, the bat speed looked fine from a scouting eye perspective. I think it’s more timing and maybe thinking too much about offspeed and maybe it looks like he’s slowing the bat down because he’s worried about the offspeed pitch and he’s late on the fastball.”

Abreu is 0-for-12 with six strikeouts against breaking pitches this season. He has a 47.1 percent whiff rate against sliders after swinging-and-missing at sliders 31.8 percent of the time last season. Abreu is also worth minus-2 defensive runs saved at first base, according to Sports Info Solutions, inviting wonder about what value he is bringing to this reeling team.

The entire circumstance is a mess for Espada, who has remained diplomatic in the face of a disastrous scenario. He is acknowledging what anyone watching the Astros can see, but can’t publicly bury a respected veteran player. Abreu remains revered inside Houston’s clubhouse, too, and his anemic performance is not a result of poor work ethic or preparation.

“You flip over the back of his baseball card and he’s going to show up, at some point,” Brown said, echoing the same trite sentiment so many in this organization have shared.

At what point will it be too late?

(Top photo: Eric Christian Smith / Associated Press)