If Jose Abreu had any control over the timing of when he entered Major League Baseball, things could’ve been different during his career with the Chicago White Sox.
A pillar of consistency, Abreu could’ve been a nationally recognized star who helped keep the White Sox in the contention conversation. Instead, an incredible career has been held back by an organization who couldn’t consistently surround him with talent until now. Unfortunately, it seems too late.
Abreu has never really deviated since defecting from Cuba and making his way to Chicago in 2014. He came out of the starting blocks hitting and has never really stopped.
Now in his fifth season, his numbers plot with little movement in chart form. He’s hit between .290 and .317, belted between 25-36 home runs, driven in between 100 and 107 runs and has held an OPS between .820 and .964 in his first four seasons.
In 2018, those numbers continue to track accordingly. ZIPS projects him to finish with 30 home runs and 100 RBI on the season with an OPS that should comfortably fall in the high-.800s and he’s been hottest since the beginning of May, slashing .364/.414/.595.
He’s fueling a run of White Sox competency — six wins in 10 games — with an OPS of 1.103 since May 13. And while his .500 BABIP in those games tells us it’s not sustainable, his season numbers fall well within what we can safely expect of Abreu during the course of a season.
Despite all that, it’s difficult to find a path where he remains a part of Chicago’s future (unless the North Siders have plans for him) beyond 2019 at the latest.
Abreu is beloved by the organization and the fans and he’s been seen as a bridge to the young Latin stars in the organization. But the plate appearances he eats up might be needed by the prospects coming through the system soon. Plus, missing out on an opportunity to add prospects to that system by dealing Abreu before his productivity dips would fly in the face of everything Rick Hahn has done in the last 18 months.
Perhaps more importantly, the White Sox aren’t going to want to pay a premium for a veteran slugger given everything we just mentioned. Abreu is 31 years old and has just one more season of arbitration remaining on his contract before he becomes an unrestricted free agent. And while he has avoided arbitration altogether and might be inclined to give the organization a discount when he hits free agency, they would still have to pay $15 million a year or more to keep him around.
That’s not an enormous price to pay. The Reinsdorf family also has a tendency to get sentimental with the White Sox, so that might be his best chance of sticking around. However, there are going to be cheaper options available.
Because of the late start to his career, Matt Davidson doesn’t even hit his first season of arbitration until 2020. So if what we’re seeing now isn’t a fluke (it’s impossible to project because he’s changed his hitting style so dramatically), he gives you a similar bottom line — mid-.800s OPS guy — for significantly less money and is the same overall defensive liability.
Eloy Jimenez, Jake Burger and Zack Collins all stand at least a decent shot of playing first base before it’s all said and done (with Burger almost likely to land at first after an Achilles injury this spring). Gavin Sheets is already at first, and his only other option will be to DH once he’s ready for the show. Further out on the fringe, catcher Evan Skoug could wind up at first and Justin Yurchak already has been forced to take up the position after starting at third base.
The good news for Abreu is that the prospects we virtually assure will play first base are all a long way out. Burger, Sheets and Yurchak are probably 2020 guys at the absolute earliest.
Unfortunately, Davidson is here now. And he only becomes more of a threat to Abreu as the rest of the lineup fills with the next wave, even if they aren’t direct threats to play first base because they will threaten to scoop up at-bats at DH and force a more permanent move for Davidson.
That’s enormously sad because Abreu has been one of the only good parts about being a White Sox fan since 2014, and he’s never been on a team that won more than 78 games. The 2020 season could be his first chance to play for a winner and the odds he’s on that team seem slim.
Ultimately, it will likely come down to what the rest of baseball thinks he’s worth and that could be Abreu’s other silver lining if he wants to stay with the White Sox. Most contenders have the pop they need at first base and designated hitter and won’t be willing to fork over a top prospect or commensurate haul for a slugger in his 30s.
If that’s the case, the organization may be inclined to sign him to one more deal and use him as a bridge to the next generation. However, circumstances change quickly in the MLB and it’d be out of character for Hahn to balk at a deal if a desperate team comes calling with a nice trade package.
No matter what happens, Abreu deserves to be remembered as one of the best White Sox ever and that’s probably the most upsetting element to the story arc. He hasn’t spent a lot of time here, which hasn’t allowed him to rack up the kind of career numbers that keep you in that conversation.
But the fans who have suffered through the last five seasons certainly won’t forget everything he tried to do to make baseball watchable on the South Side. And who knows, maybe he’ll be around long enough to get the playoff moment that can make sure we all remember him forever.