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PHOENIX – In a vacuum, nothing José Abreu said Wednesday was all that earth-shattering.
But this is no vacuum.
The White Sox’ veteran first baseman is in the final year of the three-year deal he signed ahead of the 2020 season, a contract that kept the franchise icon on the South Side and set him up to be a part of the organization’s rise out of rebuilding mode and into contention for a World Series championship.
That contract was preceded by months of Abreu, beaming whenever he discussed the White Sox and their bright future, saying that if the team didn’t offer him a new deal, he’d re-sign himself. It was a funny line, but one that also revealed how great his desire was to stick around and see the fruits of Rick Hahn’s rebuilding effort.
Fast forward to Wednesday, Abreu’s first media session of a new contract year, and the first baseman struck a noticeably different tone when asked if he wanted to play past the 2022 campaign, his ninth in a White Sox uniform.
“We haven’t even started the season. Let’s see how the season goes, and let’s see if we accomplish all the things we want to accomplish, see how I feel after the season,” Abreu said through team interpreter Billy Russo. “I’m going to consult with my family, see how I’m feeling, see how they’re feeling, and we are going to make a decision afterward.
“Right now, the focus is just to enjoy this season and have fun.”
Again, none of the content there is terribly shocking. Abreu is going to make a decision on his baseball future once the season is over. Sounds normal enough for a player who understands the business of baseball.
But it was a dramatic departure from the “I’ll sign myself” days of 2019, back when the White Sox’ championship-contending future had yet to arrive.
“We’re talking about two different years, two different situations,” he said. “I have to see what happens with this season. My goal right now is just to have a very good season, stay healthy … see what happens at the end.
“Once the season ends, I will have to make a decision and see if I want to continue or if there’s a chance to be here or if there’s a chance to be in another place. We’ll see once the season ends.”
No White Sox fan wants to hear about Abreu and “another place,” and it still seems outlandish to think he’d ever wear another major league uniform. Abreu once relayed that Jerry Reinsdorf assured a career-long stay on the South Side, and the way both Abreu and team brass have gushed about each other for years, it seems impossible that Abreu’s playing days would continue anywhere else. More likely? A retired number and a statue on the outfield concourse.
But perhaps, despite his focus on 2022, Abreu has more on his mind than just the season that lies ahead.
The guy Eloy Jiménez has described as a father figure has been there every step of the way for the White Sox’ young core. Could this really be the final season Abreu spends with his “kids”?
“Let’s enjoy this one,” Jiménez said of this season when asked about the possibility of Abreu’s tenure coming to a close. “It is what it is. Let’s enjoy this one. This is the year. Let’s hope he comes back.”
There’s no doubt that Abreu is still among the team’s most important and most productive hitters. There were skeptics when the White Sox gave him his current three-year deal heading into his age-33 season, those questioning how his production could stay high as he aged. He responded with an MVP win in 2020, then ranked as one of the team’s top hitters in 2021, too. Any assessment of the White Sox’ lineup in 2022 must include Abreu among the most positive presences.
And of course, there’s the oft-mentioned effect he has outside the lines, long praised for his mentorship of the team’s budding young stars, particularly Jiménez and fellow Cubans Yoán Moncada and Luis Robert. He’s been a model to those players and everyone else in the clubhouse, whether rebuilding cornerstones like Tim Anderson and Lucas Giolito or an outside addition like Liam Hendriks. Even Tony La Russa, who’s been around countless leaders and players during his decades in the game, holds Abreu in special company. His easy-to-see on-field defense of Abreu after multiple hit-by-pitches last season struck fans in a positive way. And this week at camp, La Russa made sure to save his preseason message to the team until Abreu arrived: “Can’t have the opening meeting till Pito is here.”
While Abreu’s age might not be slowing him in the numbers department or preventing him from being a hard-working example for his teammates, he’s coming off a 2021 campaign that saw him, for lack of a better phrase, beat to hell. Abreu was hit by 23 pitches, sometimes in wince-worthy fashion, in the knee and in the head, among many other areas. He experienced fluke moments that took a physical toll, crashing into a base runner while trying to catch a pop up on the first-base line, spraining his ankle while scampering home on a wild pitch and taking a bat tossed by an umpire off the leg.
“It was a very difficult season,” Abreu said bluntly.
When Abreu was promising a return to the White Sox in 2019, and the front office matched the flowery talk by expressing a desire to bring him back, Hahn admitted the two sides probably wouldn’t be featured in a master class on negotiation. And so perhaps Abreu’s Wednesday comments should be read for what they were: the normal talk of a player in the final year of his deal.
But given Abreu’s history of praise for this organization, his history of complete transparency in expressing his desire to be a White Sock for life, the difference in his tone is unmissable. It suggests no change in feelings toward the team, but it signals that what’s almost always been considered a certainty outside the organization, that Abreu would be playing for the White Sox in 2023, is now in question.
Is this how Abreu rides off into the sunset?
His mention of the team’s goals, seeing what accomplishments lie at the end of 2022 before making a decision, makes it seem that this could be a “last dance” of sorts. Win it all and walk away on top of the sport? Not unheard of for the game’s greats.
Abreu’s insistence that a decision will come after the season is over assures that he probably won’t have much more, or at least anything different, to say about his future the rest of the summer. But expect the topic to remain a talking point, as the team’s leader is at least acknowledging the possibility of his moving on after this run with these White Sox.
How long will it last? Is this a “win one for José” season on the South Side?
We won’t know until next offseason, it seems. Until then, Abreu and his teammates are promising to enjoy the ride, however long it lasts.
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