Major League Baseball
Three reasons why the Astros’ slow start is concerning
Major League Baseball

Three reasons why the Astros’ slow start is concerning

Updated Apr. 10, 2024 3:27 p.m. ET

The Houston Astros are only a winter removed from their seventh consecutive American League Championship Series appearance. But less than two weeks into the 2024 regular season, they already look like a team that could struggle to even make the playoffs.

While a slow start is nothing new for their veteran core (see: 2017, 2019, 2020, 2023), the Astros' 4-8 mark is their worst to open a season since 2016, which is also when the club last failed to reach the postseason. 

Still, face of the franchise José Altuve is expressing optimism about the state of the Astros, stressing that there is plenty of time for them to turn things around. While that's generally true, a few concerning trends aren't going to magically change. 

Here's a look at three key reasons for Houston's underwhelming start, and why they might mushroom into season-long issues. 


1. The bullpen has been bad

Houston's bullpen was expected to be the best in baseball after the club won the Josh Hader sweepstakes, signing the All-Star closer to a five-year, $95 million contract this offseason. The combination of Hader, Ryan Pressly and Bryan Abreu was supposed to be the most threatening back-end triumvirate we'd see this year. Back in February, however, Pressly told reporters he was surprised the Astros dropped him from closer to setup man after Hader joined the club. Perhaps that was an early indication of just how south things would go.

Even after Tuesday's 3.2 scoreless innings from the bullpen, Astros relievers sport a collective 4.95 ERA that ranks 22nd in MLB. The vaunted trio of Hader, Pressly and Abreu have combined to cough up 13 earned runs, representing more than half of the bullpen's total (24). Hader is already responsible for two losses while surrendering four runs in six appearances. Pressly appears completely unsettled in the setup role and is allowing a lot of loud contact. With Framber Valdez landing on the injured list Tuesday with elbow inflammation, Justin Verlander not expected to debut until at least May and Luis García and Lance McCullers also opening the year on the IL, Houston's relief corps will only be taxed further — and its problems more glaring.

It was surprising to see general manager Dana Brown and the front office mostly ignore middle relief depth this winter given how obvious a concern it was. The Astros lost relievers Hector Neris, Phil Maton and Ryne Stanek to free agency before splurging on a closer when they already had a great one (and an alternative option in Abreu). They clearly assumed that by adding Hader, Pressly and Abreu could just slide into slightly lesser roles and the leftover innings could be gobbled up by the other relievers. It's early, but that plan has backfired thus far.

2. José Abreu is batting and slugging .088.

The former MVP is just one piece of this mighty offense, but with Martín Maldonado no longer in the nine-hole, Abreu sure looks like Houston's best candidate for an automatic out. In the second year of his three-year, $58.5 million pact with the Astros, the 37-year-old first baseman is once again flailing at the plate. His advanced metrics are especially alarming. Entering Tuesday, his expected slugging percentage (.158) and barrel rate (0.0) were in the first percentile, while he sported a -33 OPS+ and -0.5 fWAR. 

FanGraphs' ZiPS figured Abreu would boost last year's 86 wRC+ to 103, but he looks far from an average big-league hitter through his first 37 plate appearances. He's popping out in critical at-bats and has been the Astros' most frequent violator of leaving men on base. Former manager Dusty Baker batted Abreu cleanup or fifth for most of 2023, despite his struggles. Amid this early brutal stretch, new skipper Joe Espada has dropped Abreu to the bottom of the lineup for the first time in his 11-year career — he even pinch-hit for him in extra innings Tuesday evening — while publicly voicing his belief that the veteran slugger will bounce back. 

It's becoming tougher to believe that Abreu will, and there isn't a promising alternative in the organization. It's unlikely that backup first baseman Jon Singleton is the solution. The Astros also don't have an obvious minor-league option to promote. With Yordan Álvarez typically occupying the DH spot and spending less time in left field, presumably to reduce the risk of injury, there are fewer opportunities to even give Abreu a break from the field. Simply put, the Astros are in a pickle with their declining first baseman. He has to perform. They currently have no other options. 

3. The American League hierarchy is in flux

For nearly a decade now, the Astros have been accustomed to being the de facto best team in the American League. For many years, there was hardly any competition, though the 2018 Red Sox were certainly an exception. Then last fall, an evenly-matched Rangers club emerged and rallied to eliminate Houston on its home field in the ALCS en route to winning the World Series.

Thanks in large part to the Astros' sustained success and an offense that remains dominant, they're still AL West favorites. Through Tuesday's games, FanGraphs gives them a 51.8% chance of winning the division (the Rangers are at 21.4%). While a fourth straight AL West title is more than achievable for these Astros, the first two weeks of the season have shown that they're moved down in the AL pecking order. The Yankees, Orioles and Rangers all came into the season with comparable talent and are enjoying much better starts to the 2024 season. The Yankees, who already took four games at Minute Maid Park to open the season, are an MLB-best 10-2 despite Aaron Judge hitting under .200 and Gerrit Cole on the IL. 

It's still early April, and it'd be premature to discount the Astros from turning it around soon and looking more like the commanding club it's been all these years. But it'd also be inaccurate to call them the team to beat in the American League.

Deesha Thosar is an MLB writer for FOX Sports. She previously covered the Mets as a beat reporter for the New York Daily News. The daughter of Indian immigrants, Deesha grew up on Long Island and now lives in Queens. Follow her on Twitter at @DeeshaThosar.


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