Richard Justice: The Astros aren’t hitting, and in a related development, Drew Gilbert is tearing up Class A pitching

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: The Astros aren’t hitting, and in a related development, Drew Gilbert is tearing up Class A pitching

   The Astros could use a spark. In a related development, outfielder Drew Gilbert collected three hits, including a pair of home runs, for the Class A Asheville Tourists on Wednesday.

   He’s hitting .342 with five doubles, five homers, three stolen bases, and a 1.051 OPS in 18 games. That would appear to make him the living, breathing definition of a spark.

   Okay, okay, it’s too soon. He has played just 29 minor league games, none of them above Single-A. Even if he’s promoted to Double-A Corpus Christi in the next few days, he would at least have to tear that league up as well.


   This kid has a chance to be in the conversation in the second half of this season. The Astros once required that prospects succeed at every level before getting to the major leagues.

   That’s still ideal, but these may be special circumstances. First, Gilbert is 22 years old, which is when an organization’s best prospects begin to sniff the big leagues.

   Second, he played 141 games at the University of Tennessee in the best college baseball conference in the land. He had a 1.178 OPS in 58 games his final season and was the 28th pick of the 2022 draft.

   Third, few teams were as aggressive in promoting their best prospects as the Atlanta Braves were during Astros general manager Dana Brown’s time there.

   Last year’s National League Rookie of the Year Michael Harris II debuted at 21 last season after 43 games at Double-A. Ronald Acuna Jr. joined the Braves at 20 after a handful of games at Triple-A.

   Lots of major league talent evaluators have changed their thinking on prospects. Instead of allowing them time to develop, they believe the best ones will make the necessary adjustments even if they’re pushed aggressively.

   “I’m challenging Gilbert right now,” Brown said this spring. “I’m challenging him that, `Hey, get ready because we believe in young players.’ I think he’s a guy that could come up and play center field.”

   Nothing looks more lifeless than a major league baseball team that’s not hitting. The Astros hit .191 and scored 15 runs in losing four of six on the just-concluded homestand.

   Michael Brantley’s return is imminent, and that will help. Same thing when Jose Altuve is back in six weeks or so. But the bigger issues are Alex Bregman and Jose Abreu.

   Bregman’s .683 OPS is 55th of 85 qualified hitters. He showed signs of getting it going a couple of weeks ago but exits the home stand in a 3 for 29 funk.

   As for Abreu, there’s no way to sugarcoat it: his three-year, $58.5-million contract has been a disaster. Unlike Bregman, he has shown no signs of being what the Astros hoped he’d be.

   His .531 OPS is 83rd of 85 qualified hitters, and he’s 125 at-bats into his Astros career without a home run. Brantley took ground balls at first base this spring and told “It’s a team-first approach always. I’ve always been like that. If I can help the team out in any way, I’ll be available. It’s a lot of hard work. I’m learning a lot very quickly, but it’s all been going smoothly so far.”

   A big part of Dusty Baker’s genius is patience and the perspective of six decades in the sport. His bullpen approach this season, more than ever, reflect a big-picture approach to the season.

   But the Astros are trying to get back to the World Series for the fifth time in seven seasons, and even the most patient man has his limits. Bregman’s history says he’ll figure things out at some point, and he has earned the right to try.

   Abreu’s only selling point is that the Astros gave him a lot of money. If he’s still not hitting in July and August, and if Drew Gilbert is lighting up Double-A or Triple-A pitching, it’ll be time for a shakeup.

    The Astros appear in no danger of missing the playoffs. They’re 2 1/2 games out of first place as they begin a nine-game road trip against the Mariners, Angels, and White Sox.

   Offensively, they’re in the middle of the pack despite the recent struggles. They’re eighth in OPS (.680), seventh in on-base percentage, and 11th in slugging.

   But with three injured starting pitchers—Lance McCullers, Jose Urquidy, and Luis Garcia—they’ve got plenty of reasons to worry. But it was the hitting—and not the pitching—that contributed to a tough homestand. The Astros have been a very good road team (8-4), and if that continues, it’ll buy them time before looking at tough decisions. Stay tuned.

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  • Top collegiate baseball programs are equivalent to double A baseball.

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