Tuesday August 25th, 2009

Bobby Abreu spends part of every offseason in Asia, hop-scotching from China to Japan, Hong Kong to Vietnam, Taiwan to Taipei. The annual trip allows him to check on real estate he owns in the Far East and escape the hot-stove hubbub back in the U.S. But last winter he could not get away from that hubbub, no matter how far he strayed.

In late December, Abreu turned down a two-year contract from Tampa Bay for approximately $16 million, believing that a .300 hitter who knocks in 100 runs a season could do better. For the next two months he did not receive another offer. "I kept asking myself, 'What's going on here?' " Abreu said. "The numbers are there. The numbers are always there. So what is it?"

The economy was partly to blame, but Abreu was one of many corner outfielders on the free-agent market, and because of his age (35) he was not given priority. Milton Bradley got $30 million from the Cubs for three years. Manny Ramirez got $45 million from the Dodgers for two years. Adam Dunn got $20 million from the Nationals for two years. The Rays moved from Abreu to Pat Burrell and gave him $16 million for two years. Abreu started to wonder if his personality, stoic and businesslike, was hurting him. Maybe, for the sake of his marketability, he needed to throw a tantrum like Bradley or quit on a team like Ramirez. "Other guys were getting jobs," Abreu said, "and the guy who doesn't bother anybody wasn't getting a job."

The Angels, who prize a peaceful clubhouse, shied away from Ramirez and looked for a less controversial option. Sensing a bargain, they went after Abreu in February to see if they could get him for the cut rate of one year, $5 million. He took the deal. He had no choice. It had been two months since his last offer. By then he had all but ruled out a long-term contract, anyway, eager to prove his true value and test the market again. Abreu had instructed his agents, Chris Leible and Peter and Ed Greenberg: "No three-year deals. No two-year deals. I'll take one year and I'll show everybody what they missed out on."

Six months later, Abreu is batting .307 with 81 RBIs. Bradley is batting .250 with 31 RBIs. Burrell is batting .235 with 46 RBIs. Ramirez is batting .303 with 45 RBIs and a 50-game drug suspension. The Angels are at the top of the American League West, largely because of Abreu, who has solidified the middle of their lineup and showed their younger hitters how to work counts. Ever since the Angels won the World Series in 2002 they have been a team of free-swingers, capturing division titles but falling apart in the playoffs. This year they rank second in the majors in on-base percentage at .354, a figure that portends success in the postseason.

"We've changed because of Bobby," Angels center fielder Torii Hunter said. "It's all trickled down from him."

Angels hitting coach Mickey Hatcher has pleaded with his players over the years to take more pitches, especially early in games, so they can see what kind of stuff a pitcher has. "Then guys get up there," Hatcher said, "and they're afraid to take a strike or two and get behind in the count." Abreu, on the other hand, likes to spend his entire first at-bat seeing everything a pitcher throws. He has become the ultimate teaching aid for Hatcher, a role that Mark Teixeira occupied last season before he signed a free-agent megadeal with the Yankees. The main difference between Abreu and Teixeira -- besides their annual salaries -- is that Abreu comes from Venezuela and is more capable of communicating with the Angels' many Latino players.

"I tell him all the time," Hatcher said, " 'Abreu, you've got the Latin guys.' "

Abreu can often be spotted on the bench next to shortstop Erick Aybar, second baseman Maicer Izturis and first baseman Kendry Morales, narrating action into the knob of his bat, as if he is a play-by-play man broadcasting into a microphone. From last season to this one, Aybar's on-base percentage has gone up 37 points, Izturis's 30 points and Morales's 77 points. The Angels, traditionally built around pitching and defense, have completely restructured their identity. Last week, while they scrambled to put together a starting rotation, they played one game in which all nine players in their lineup ended the game hitting .300 or better. According to the Elias Sports Bureau that marked the first time that occurred at least 100 games into a season since the Tigers did it in 1934.

"They're taking a different road this year," said Tampa Bay manager Joe Maddon, who used to be the Angels bench coach. "You've got a lot of little guys who know how to work the bat."

Abreu is showing them the way. He is not only one of the most underpaid players in baseball, but also one of the most underrated. Not since he was a rookie in 1997 has he batted less than .280. Not since 2002 has he driven in fewer than 100 runs. Only six players in major league history have 2,000 hits, 1,000 RBIs, 1,000 walks, 1,000 runs, 300 steals and 250 home runs: Willie Mays, Barry Bonds, Rickey Henderson, Joe Morgan, Craig Biggio and Abreu.

He will hit the free-agent market again this winter and, chances are, teams will still be concerned about his age and the economy. But after the season Abreu is putting together in Anaheim, he is in line for a raise.

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