Have the White Sox already made their decision on José Abreu?
If so, it seems this one could have used a little more thought, a little more waiting, at the very least.
Rick Hahn talked to reporters at the GM meetings in Las Vegas and echoed what plenty of frustrated White Sox fans had been griping about throughout the disappointing 2022 campaign. He acknowledged that players playing out of position helped the White Sox become one of baseball’s worst defensive teams. He acknowledged that Andrew Vaughn is a first baseman and that his offensive numbers could be helped by playing his natural position regularly. He acknowledged that Eloy Jiménez, long maligned for his defensive misadventures in left field, thrived as a DH last season and could be ticketed for that position in 2023.
All fair points.
But when asked about Abreu’s current free agency and its potential result of the franchise icon playing somewhere besides the South Side next season, Hahn told reporters, including The Athletic’s James Fegan, that the White Sox are “insulated from a production standpoint against that departure.”
Hahn identified offense as his team’s biggest problem last season. The power numbers were particularly abysmal, but for a large portion of the campaign, the White Sox struggled to score runs in any fashion. A team built to pummel opposing pitching didn’t do that, finishing below league average with 4.23 runs per game.
Abreu, meanwhile, was perhaps the White Sox’ best hitter. While Jiménez was sensational after returning from his injury and was one of baseball’s finest bats in the second half, Abreu was more consistently great, something that comes along with the first baseman’s typical durability; he played in 157 games, above 150 for the sixth time in his nine-year major league career.
Abreu finished second in the AL in hits, and though his power numbers were as down as the rest of his teammates’ – his 15 home runs were a career low – he showed an ability most of his teammates didn’t and adjusted his game to help his team score runs. Abreu had a career-best 62 walks, and his .378 on-base percentage was his highest since his Rookie of the Year campaign in 2014.
Dylan Cease, who finished second in this year’s AL Cy Young vote, was the only White Sox player to end the season with more bWAR than Abreu.
All this is to say that Abreu is not an easy player to replace. His production is not easy to replace.
Do the White Sox have someone they can put at first base, a move that would end up benefiting more than one guy on the roster? Yes. But Abreu’s production came on top of Vaughn’s and Jiménez’s last season. On top of Luis Robert’s and Tim Anderson’s and Yoan Moncada’s and Yasmani Grandal’s. All of those players, whether due to injury or underperformance or both, failed to live up to their own expected levels of production last season. And now, somehow, they’re supposed to reach their own potential and eclipse it in a way that makes up for the loss of the guy who won the AL MVP two years ago?
That is a tough ask.
The White Sox are a worse team without Abreu, who despite an advancing age has remained one of baseball’s most consistently productive hitters. The last time Abreu hit free agency, there were criticisms of the White Sox’ decision to give him a three-year contract, given his age. And all he did was win an MVP and post wRC-plus marks of 164, 125, and 137.
Now, there are of course some possibilities to acknowledge here. A free-agent signing is a mutual decision. Jerry Reinsdorf once told Abreu he’d never play in another uniform, and the rave reviews of Abreu’s ability as an on-field player and an off-field leader and mentor have never stopped, including Hahn’s praise of him as recently as Tuesday. Abreu’s change in tone on a return to the White Sox started in the spring and stood in stark contrast to the “I’ll re-sign myself” days of 2019. It takes two to tango, and it shouldn’t be assumed the White Sox are the ones leaving Abreu standing at the altar, to mix metaphors.
Then there’s dollars. We’ve talked ad nauseam about how difficult it will be for Hahn to make changes this winter with a roster that’s mostly stuck in place. With opportunities to improve the club at second base and in the corner-outfield spots, perhaps it’s simply money allocation. Maybe the White Sox, with their 2023 budget, can’t afford to keep Abreu if they want to craft a roster that improves the areas they were deficient last season. Again, that seems odd, as Abreu has historically provided power and has been described by Hahn and other team decision-makers as a Gold Glove caliber first baseman. To sacrifice everything he brings to get more left-handed is a little silly, in my opinion.
The other frustrating element here is time. USA Today’s Bob Nightengale reported at season’s end that the White Sox were planning on moving on from Abreu. That’s before seeing what his market was or seeing how difficult it would be to bring him back. Isn’t there a world where waiting to see what offers Abreu receives better informs a decision? It would be expected for the White Sox to act that very reasonable way, but the emphasis on Vaughn being a first baseman coupled with the Nightengale report make it seem like the team has made up its mind.
If that’s the case, Hahn and his front office better land one heck of an offensive player in either free agency or a trade. Because the White Sox need to be a lot better in 2023 to avoid a repeat of 2022. Without Abreu, it’s going to be significantly harder to be a lot better.