Jose Abreu burst onto the scene during his debut season in Major League Baseball. Despite already being 27-years-old, Abreu won the American League Rookie of the Year award after hitting .317/.383/.581 with 36 home runs in 622 plate appearances. He posted a 167 wRC+ and, despite FRAA finding his defense to be pretty poor, produced 5.7 WARP. The White Sox still could not find a path to the playoffs, however, and the other stars that surrounded Abreu on that team have all been traded away in the last nine months. Even those that weren’t on the 2014 team, like Todd Frazier, Melky Cabrera, David Robertson, and Tommy Kahnle, have been traded away. Abreu is the one veteran that remains on the team.
The production following Abreu’s stunning rookie season has not quite kept up. With Abreu now on the wrong side of age 30, that makes sense. He’s still managed to be a good hitter in each of his first four seasons, but he has never quite reached the bar he set during his rookie campaign. This season, playing on a roster full of youngsters, the 30-year-old has had what is likely his best season since the one in 2014. He’s hitting .294/.346/.522 with 23 home runs. That’s pretty good, but it isn’t the Dominant Arguably Best Hitter In The League type stuff. Abreu’s age, contract situation, and lack of dominant performance seem to indicate that he should be on his way out the door in the near future. However, there are some intangibles that must be considered.
Intangibles are hard to value. Some in the sabermetric world will try to tell you they don’t matter or don’t exist at all. Others will admit to their value but claim it pales in comparison to what is done on the field between the first inning and the last. In most cases that is probably true. Minor disagreements between players are usually shoved to the side after the first pitch is thrown. Accolades about a player’s character aren’t always reliable, and clubhouse chemistry is an equation yet to be solved. And there’s the chicken-or-the-egg issue of chemistry as it relates to winning. And yet, there are very specific cases where impacts off the field must be concerned. These are humans after all, just like us. They respond positively and negatively to those they interact with, and their emotions cannot always be left outside of the workplace. One specific case that has touched the White Sox this season may be found in the struggles of Tim Anderson on and off the field after his best friend was murdered, which Collin Whitchurch touched on recently. Another is in the case for keeping Abreu on the White Sox.
Even before the White Sox roster was torn down and replaced with a ragtag group of Triple-A players, Abreu was a leader in the clubhouse. His growth in that role has only continued as the team has gotten younger, adding players like Yoan Moncada and Anderson to the fold. Surely his being Cuban played some part in the friendship that has quickly blossomed between him and Moncada. He even used his seamless transition from Cuba to the White Sox as a way to convince highly touted prospect Luis Robert to sign with the team. But Abreu is more than just a player who can relate to one or two of the prospects purely from a cultural standpoint. He has shown an ability to lead in many ways.
Thursday night yielded yet another example of leadership from Abreu. Reynaldo Lopez, still one of just a few top White Sox prospects on the big league team, was making his second start of the season. Despite scraping his way through 4.1 innings with 6 strikeouts, something was clearly off with the young righty. He was removed from the game with an injury in his right side. After the game Abreu said this:
“First and foremost, we have to highlight he wanted to pitch through the pain. But when Ricky left, I asked him, ‘hey are you sure you’re feeling good?’ Because I think with that kind of talent you can’t mess around. You have to take care of these kids, especially if you are thinking of the future. He told me his right side was sore, and then at that moment, I decided to call Ricky back to let him know”
There were also indications that Abreu told Lopez to not be a hero and that Lopez had actually been feeling sore the entire day, even before he stepped on the mound. Regardless of the series of events that led to Lopez pushing himself through over four innings of work, it was Abreu who stepped up and made sure the young pitcher was not in danger of further injuring himself. How do you quantify that? You can’t. We simply have to rely on the fact that we know Abreu is a good player but also an exceptional teammate.
Abreu’s contract expires after the 2019 season. The White Sox will be lucky to be reaching their window of contention by 2020 based on the age of a majority of their young talent. The team could let the contract expire, allowing Abreu to at least be a mentor to a good portion of the prospects that will be difference-makers on the next good White Sox team. Or they could extend Abreu’s contract, which could be a tricky thing to navigate properly given his profile.
His ability to mentor and lead the future stars of the team, however, might be just enough to convince the White Sox he’s worth keeping around. Even if Abreu isn’t in the long term plans beyond 2019, the White Sox were wise to keep him at the deadline and would be wise to do so in the coming years. The impact he has may not show up in a box score or on the stats page, but it could pay dividends for a team relying so heavily on future production from young stars.
Lead Image Credit: Bob DeChiara-USA TODAY Sports