Jose Abreu’s return to South Side with Astros overshadowed by his struggles

Abreu entered the game Friday against the White Sox with a season-low .218 batting average, a .261 slugging percentage and a .525 OPS.

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Jose Abreu acknowledges the applause of White Sox fans Friday at Guaranteed Rate Field in his first game there with the Astros.

Quinn Harris/Getty Images

Jose Abreu arrived with the Astros on Friday afternoon at Guaranteed Rate Field, where he relished the memories of nine seasons with the White Sox in which he became one of the American League’s most formidable sluggers.

But the homecoming wasn’t completely merry, as Abreu’s early batting-practice session came under dark skies that later turned to rain, mirroring his struggles at the plate, as well as the struggles of his former team.

“I wish I could tell you when I was going to get out of the slump, but I think the biggest thing [is] I’m just going to try to battle all of it every single day,” Abreu said before a corral of reporters and cameras. “And just thanks to the Houston organization — they’re respecting me the whole time and supported me. And they accept me how I am right now.”

But for how long? Astros manager Dusty Baker had the 2020 AL MVP in the fifth spot in the lineup Friday for only the fifth time this season after giving him his first rest Wednesday. That came after Abreu batted 2-for-17 with six strikeouts over his previous five games. Entering this three-game series, he hadn’t hit a home run since Sept. 13, 2022 — a span of 187 at-bats.

For all the expensive decisions that have backfired on the Sox, the fact they didn’t match the three-year, $58.5 million contract the Astros tendered Abreu in November is a small victory now amid an otherwise horrific start to the season.

Even Abreu, 36, who hit 30 homers two seasons ago, wasn’t sure if his production would return this weekend at a comfortable venue.

“I think the only thing I’m looking for is [that] people respect me the same way I respect them — and just play the game the right way,” said Abreu, who was greeted by several former teammates and employees during his early BP. “If I work hard, things will turn around.”

Nevertheless, Abreu faces a monumental climb to his normal levels. He entered Friday with a season-low .218 batting average (down from .317 after a 10-game hitting streak to start the season), a .261 slugging percentage and a .525 OPS. His strikeout rate has climbed from 16.2% in 2022 to 21.9% this season, while his walk rate has dipped from 9.1 to 5.3% over the same period.

According to Fangraphs, Abreu’s exit velocity has dropped from 92.2 mph in 2022 to 87.0, and his hard-hit rate has sunk from 51.7 to 35.8%.

“The reality is I’m not swinging the bat well,” Abreu said.

Baker doesn’t believe Abreu’s big contract has weighed on his mind.

“He works exceptionally hard and has a great attitude about things,” Baker said. “This guy is a great team guy. He’ll be all right. We’ve just got to get him rolling. Once he starts rolling, a lot of good stuff to come.”

Abreu, who hit 243 home runs with the Sox, was to be honored with a video tribute before Friday’s rain-delayed game.

“He put his body on the line day in and day out,” Sox pitcher Lucas Giolito recalled. “He’d go out and play through stuff that a lot of you guys didn’t know about. He’d play through stuff a lot of fans didn’t know about. He wanted to play every single day.”

This marks a bittersweet reunion, considering Abreu’s hitting struggles and the Sox’ malaise since the teams split a four-game season-opening series at Houston.

“It kind of stinks to see what they’re going through, but it’s part of the game,” Abreu said. “It’s a very tough game that we all play, and I think I’ve been going through a lot more struggles than the White Sox have, and it’s part of the challenge. You’ve got to fight through them, and try to move on.”

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