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José Abreu’s teammates say they need him back, but will White Sox return happen?

Vinnie Duber Avatar
October 5, 2022

We knew right away, from the opening days of spring training, that this time would be different.

Back in 2019, when José Abreu was last approaching free agency, he unleashed a barrage of compliments toward the White Sox, professing his love for the organization and stating that his desire to be a part of their rise out of rebuilding mode was so strong, he’d re-sign himself to a new contract if he had to.

This time, though?

“We’re talking about two different years, two different situations. I have to see what happens with this season,” Abreu said through team interpreter Billy Russo in mid March. “My goal right now is just to have a very good season, stay healthy. … 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.”

The season ends Wednesday, the White Sox wrapping up what has been described by many – those watching from the couch and those watching from the front office – as the most disappointing season of a lifetime.

Abreu’s future remains uncertain, though the speculation that 2022 might end in retirement can be thrown in the trash. The first baseman, speaking ahead of the team’s penultimate game Tuesday, made it clear: He badly wants to keep playing major league ball in 2023.

“¡Claro!” he exclaimed, responding with the Spanish word for “of course” when asked whether he wanted to extend his career past the next two days. “I’m hungry. I’m hungry for more baseball.”

But how much hunger is there, on either side, for another contract between Abreu and the White Sox?

Last time, it was obvious, and Rick Hahn joked then that neither side’s approach to what ended up being a three-year pact would be held up in business classes as an example of how to negotiate.

This time, the language has been striking for the opposite reason. Abreu, who has long gushed about the White Sox at every turn, has seemed far more businesslike, and he informed Tuesday that as of yet there have been no contract talks between the two sides. Hahn, meanwhile, had this to offer during his end-of-season press conference Monday:

“He’s been exemplary in terms of what you want a White Sox player to be for nine years now. …  No matter what the future holds for him, here or elsewhere, I don’t think you are ever going to hear anyone with this organization say a bad word about José.

“How it fits going forward, that remains to be seen come this offseason. Obviously, there’s only so many different ways that you can fit various players on the roster, and José returning would have a ripple effect on others. But we’ll have to wait to see how things unfold and make those decisions accordingly.”

A team stance of “wait and see” might not be wildly different from how pending free-agent cases are typically discussed across the sport. But when it comes to Abreu and the White Sox? I mean, this is the guy team chairman Jerry Reinsdorf promised would never wear another jersey. And now that the prospect of him wearing another jersey has arisen, the team’s public opinion on the matter is “we’ll see how he fits”?

That’s wildly different.

There’s an unavoidable truth, of course, that the White Sox have a head-scratcher of a log jam on their hands when it comes to first-base/DH types. Abreu’s entrenchment at first base has served as a bit of a roadblock to young first basemen Andrew Vaughn and Gavin Sheets, who have been shunted into out-of-position corner-outfield roles in an attempt to keep their bats in the lineup.

Meanwhile, Eloy Jiménez, thanks to another significant injury, was forced to serve as the team’s primary designated hitter on a regular basis – something he never wanted to do amid questions about his outfield defense – and flourished, perhaps staking a claim to the role for 2023 and taking away a potential spot for Vaughn or Sheets. Needing to improve the team’s defense, Hahn is going to have a tricky time putting the puzzle together for 2023 while including as many of these guys as possible.

Some have argued the only solution is to send Abreu off with a tearful goodbye and the promise of a jersey-retirement ceremony in a few years’ time, to let him continue his sensational big league career elsewhere.

Just don’t expect any of those people to be found in the White Sox’ clubhouse. Asked if this team needs Abreu next year and moving forward, in general, the answers were unanimous.

“Yeah, 100 percent,” Luis Robert said.

“Yeah, definitely,” Tim Anderson said.

“Yeah, why not?” Jiménez said. “He’s been fantastic this year, all the years that he’s played here. Why not? He’s been one of the motivating players that we have. Day in, day out, no matter how he feels, he’s out there. So why not?”

It doesn’t need to be explained how much Abreu’s presence off the field has meant to his teammates, with seasons’ worth of evidence pointing to his work as a mentor, a leader and a father figure inside the White Sox’ clubhouse. That appreciation was especially vocalized during the team’s darkest rebuilding years. But it applies to their current phase, as well, as discussed during the 2021 campaign, when he played while taking a physical beating, repeatedly hit with pitches and dealing with other freak occurrences.

His teammates’ respect for him, the organization’s respect for him, remains as high as can be.

“I would love to have Abreu back,” Liam Hendriks said. “I would love to have him back purely based on the presence he brings. I mean, you look at the Wins Above Replacement board in that (White Sox) lineup up there, he’s heads and tails above everybody. … From a leadership point of view, I think from a defensive (point of view), I think from an offensive point of view, I think he’s an integral part of this team. I hope we bring him back.”

“He’s one of the leaders on the team,” Miguel Cairo said. “He wants to play every game. He wants to be in there, in the battle, on the field. He wants to be (there) for the team. He wants to show the way it’s supposed to be done. … I hope he comes back. I hope they bring him back over here because he’s a guy that’s going to give everything for this organization.”

But the idea of losing Abreu to an offseason roster shake-up has been far more palatable for a certain subset of White Sox fans, who argue that allowing Vaughn, Sheets and Jiménez, all of them potential long-term pieces, to fit into place more easily is preferable to another year, or multiple more years, of a continually aging Abreu, whose power numbers – like everyone else on this team – took a nosedive in 2022.

Of course, even that dropoff on the power front has not prevented the uber-consistent Abreu from being the team’s best hitter this season. He ranks among the AL leaders in hits, and his batting average and on-base percentage are among the highest of his career. After an early slump, no player on a team that has struggled to score runs all year has hit as consistently well as Abreu.

While improving this team’s versatility, defensive ability and speed should be priorities for Hahn & Co. this winter, it would seem foolish, assuming an interest in returning on Abreu’s part, to willingly deny the return of such an offensive presence for a team whose top problem this season was the offense.

Put simply, the White Sox are a better team with Abreu than without him.

But just how much interest there is from Abreu is difficult to ascertain.

Whereas there was a year’s worth of “re-sign myself” talk to go on in 2019, there have been no such comments this time around. Speaking for what’s expected to be the final time this season Tuesday, Abreu only briefly said he’d even be happy to return and extend his White Sox tenure, an aside made while directing a thank you message to the fans.

“I want to thank them for all the support, for always having my back,” he said through Russo. “These were a special nine years, and I hope that there can be more. But up to now it’s been very special, and I’m going to be forever grateful for them.”

Other than that, Abreu refused to talk about his White Sox career lasting longer than a couple more days.

“I’m a White Sox right now, and I’ll be a White Sox tomorrow,” he said. “We’ll see.”

So a similar approach is being taken by both sides: “We’ll see.”

Why are things so different this time around?

“Because I already know the process,” Abreu said.

Read into that what you will, but it seems Abreu’s last free-agency experience has indeed had an effect on the one he’ll start soon. What sort of effect it has on how he views another reunion with the White Sox? That’s unclear.

The only available clarity comes from Abreu’s teammates, the guys who have learned how to be big leaguers thanks to his mentorship and leadership. It’s clear how important his role in that clubhouse is, and considering the likelihood of a very similar-looking White Sox roster returning to try to erase the “disgust” of 2022 next season, perhaps removing Abreu from the equation would have unintended consequences that stretch beyond the field of play.

The White Sox, so say the guys in uniform, need Abreu.

But do the decision makers need him? And does Abreu need the White Sox?

We don’t know.

One last thought: If you’re an Abreu fan and think that he needs a championship ring as the cherry to top off the sundae that is a sensational career, he doesn’t feel he needs to be wearing a different uniform to get it.

Asked if this group is capable of achieving the championship-level goals it set for itself, Abreu’s answer was as clear as anything he said Tuesday:

“One hundred percent.”

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