Richard Justice: Dusty Baker gives slumping José Abreu his first day off. For Yainer Diaz, it’s an opportunity.

Apr 30, 2023; Houston, Texas, USA; Houston Astros first baseman Jose Abreu (79) reacts after a play during the third inning against the Houston Astros at Minute Maid Park. Mandatory Credit: Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

Richard Justice: Dusty Baker gives slumping José Abreu his first day off. For Yainer Diaz, it’s an opportunity.

  Was this one day off? Or an opportunity for someone else to step up? Probably a bit of both. Dusty Baker gave struggling first baseman José Abreu his first day off of the season Wednesday afternoon in Anaheim, and Yainer Diaz made his major-league debut at first base.

   This wouldn’t be an issue if the Astros were at full strength. They could afford to allow Abreu to get straightened out. In the end, his October production was going to be all that mattered.

   Instead, they haven’t gotten a single at-bat from Jose Altuve and Michael Brantley this season, and Alex Bregman and Jeremy Pena are off to slow starts. So Abreu’s lack of productivity—he’s last among major league first basemen in slugging and on-base percentage—is a glaring issue.

   The Astros are bottom five in the majors in on-base percentage (22nd), slugging (27th), and on-base-plus slugging (27th). In losing 7 of their last 11 games, they’re hitting .205 and averaging 3.1 runs per game.

   Other than Yordan Alvarez and Kyle Tucker, they haven’t had a single consistent offensive producer. That they’re still a .500 team is a tribute to Alvarez’s greatness and a pitching staff that’s rolling along with the second-lowest ERA in the majors despite injuries to three starters.

   Besides, Abreu’s track record suggests he’ll get it going, and the bottom line would end up in the usual place: 34 doubles, 27 home runs, 96 RBIs. That hasn’t happened yet, and Baker told reporters on Wednesday: “I think he’s hurting a little bit somewhere but is not saying.”

  Far be it from me to second-guess the Astros signing him to a three-year, $58.5-million contract since I wrote glowingly of it.

   Those that criticized it mostly pointed out that he would be 36 on Opening Day, and that he was coming off a career-low 15-homer season. I discounted that because he did produce 40 doubles in 2022 and also because his average exit velocity—92.2 mph—was the second-highest of his career.

   If he was slowing down, it wasn’t showing up in the most basic of things—hitting the ball hard. I was unbothered by his age because I’d been around him enough to believe his work ethic and commitment would overcome Father Time.

   I liked the signing for another reason: he would be a perfect fit in the Astros clubhouse. He had a huge positive influence on young players during his nine seasons with the Chicago White Sox.

   That was then. He has zero home runs in 142 at-bats and is next-to-last among MLB first basemen in on-base percentage. He’s hitting .133 against left-handed pitching, and in 42 plate appearances with runners in scoring position, he has produced four doubles and five singles.

   Until Wednesday, Baker had chosen to continue writing his name on his lineup card for two reasons. One is that Abreu has done enough in the game to have earned some patience.

   This probably isn’t about the $58.5 million since (a) the Astros have to pay that whether he’s playing or not and (b) this franchise is in a win-now mode.

   I’m guessing that an entire organization approaches every game believing this is the one that snaps the 2020 American League Most Valuable Player out of his funk and he reels off a hot six or seven weeks. He has done it before.

   Also, what options does Baker have? David Hensley? He’s hitting .152 with 26 strikeouts in 66 at-bats. Brantley took some ground balls at first base this spring, but there’s no reason to see him as a realistic option.

   J.J. Matijevic is the intriguing minor league option. He has a .927 OPS at Sugar Land, but there’s no reason to bring him up if he’s not going to play regularly.

Diaz has started at first base in 46 minor league games, including 25 for Corpus Christi last season. His making the team out of spring training was something of a surprise, but the Astros believe the 24-year-old has a chance to be a contributor on a winning team. He had an .898 OPS in 105 games at Double-A Corpus and Triple-A Sugar Land last season.

This probably is not permanent. At least that’s not the plan. But if he shows he deserves another look, he’ll almost certainly get it.

This move comes as Bregman is showing signs of getting it going, and Altuve and Brantley could both return within weeks.

   Interestingly, the Astros are no longer favorites to win the AL West, according to FanGraphs projections. At the moment, it has the Astros and Rangers with 87 victories apiece, with the Angels (84) and Mariners (83) close behind.

   All things considered, this probably is better than the Astros could expect considering the injuries. With Alvarez and Tucker anchoring the lineup, with two stars possibly close to returning, and with an excellent pitching staff, it’s not a stretch to see the Astros winning another championship.

   So far, though, they’ve had hurdle after hurdle thrown in front of them. Some years, the regular season has gotten boring because everything fell into place. This isn’t going to be one of them.

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