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Deep Dive: José Abreu's past, present and future with the White Sox

Does Abreu truly have a 'lifetime' deal? We'll find out, as he tests free agency for the first time.

Since 2014: José Abreu is the unofficial team leader — will the free agent return to play longer in a White Sox uniform? (Clinton Cole/South Side Hit Pen)

“Deep Dive” focuses on the depth of each position in the Chicago White Sox organization. Each position is broken into a five-part series:

  1. Depth in the rookie levels (Dominican through Great Falls)
  2. Depth in A-ball (Kannapolis and Winston-Salem)
  3. Depth in the higher levels (Birmingham and Charlotte)
  4. Under the Radar-type detail on one of the White Sox players at that position
  5. Free agent options at that position

How did he get here?

José Abreu enjoyed quite the decorated career in Series Nacional, the top Cuban league. He began his professional career at just 17, holding his own with a .271 average against much older competition. From there, he blossomed into one of the top hitters in the league, or any league for that matter, hitting .399/.555/.822, .453/.597/.986, .394/.542/.837, and .382/.535/.735 in his last four seasons in Cuba. During that stretch, Abreu hit 111 home runs in 254 games and walked nearly twice as often as he struck out. Pretty impressive stuff, eh? No wonder the White Sox spent so much money ($68 million for four years, which is still their largest free agent contract to date) in October 2013 for someone who had yet to face strong American competition!

Well, in 2014, Abreu proved many skeptics and doubters wrong. In what is still considered his career year, Abreu slashed .317/.353/.581 with 35 doubles, two triples, 36 homers, 107 RBIs, 51 walks (8.2%) and 131 strikeouts (21.1%). The AL Rookie of the Year wasn't the only thing he won in 2014: Abreu also tied for first in slugging percentage and OPS, was the AL Silver Slugger Award winner at first base, won three Rookie of the Month honors (April, June and July), and two AL Player of the Month honors (April and July).

Abreu continued to produce solid numbers from 2015-17 by slashing .290/.347/.502, .293/.353/.468, and .304/.354/.552 respectively with at least 25 homers and 100 RBIs each year. The 2018 season was a difficult one for Abreu, as he suffered through a grueling pair of injuries that shortened his campaign to just 128 games. As a result, despite clubbing 36 doubles, Abreu slugged a career-low in homers (22), RBIs (78), BA (.265), OBP (.325) and OPS (.798). Yet, despite those downers, he earned his second career All-Star appearance and copped a second Silver Slugger Award.

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With the White Sox in 2019

In this his final arbitration year with the White Sox, Abreu enjoyed a terrific bounce-back campaign. In 159 games totaling 634 at-bats, he slashed .284/.330/.503 with 38 doubles, one triple, 33 homers, 123 RBIs (a career high), 36 walks and 152 strikeouts. Abreu's numbers were basically a split between his 2017 (.304/.354/.552) and 2018 seasons (.265/.325/.473). Though he struggled a bit against righthanders (.257/.299/.472), Abreu definitely earned his keep against southpaws to the tune of a .360/.418/.591 slash line. Abreu also took advantage of his friendly home confines by slashing .309/.361/.544 in Chicago vs. .262/.302/.467 on the road. His best month came in August, when Abreu slashed .356/.409/.593 with 10 doubles, six homers, 28 RBIs and seven walks in 30 games. He also excelled with two outs (.316/.388/.584) and with runners in scoring position (.337/.368/.590).

What doesn't surface in Abreu's stats are his leadership and mentoring abilities, as he carries himself much like a player-manager. He leads by example by providing all-out hustle offensively and defensively (though he lacks the ideal range in the field), by aiding players like Yo´n Moncada, Eloy Jiménez, and Reynaldo López with coaching intangibles (i.e. positive reinforcement, constructive criticism and guidance). In fact, he even took it a step further in his recruitment of blue-chip outfielder Luis Robert. Certainly Abreu's defense at first is below average, but it's not for lack of effort.

Unfortunately, it's that defense (and his relative inability to take a walk) that brings Abreu's WAR down a peg or two. Baseball Prospectus gave him an astonishingly low 0.2 WARP, in large part due to those defensive struggles, while he fared much better with FanGraphs (1.9) and Baseball-Reference (2.4). In fact, if he were mostly a DH, Abreu's WAR numbers would've been much higher.

Thus, with my playing the role of Captain Obvious, I'm not going out on the limb in stating that Abreu must produce offensively in order to produce on-the-field value. Based on Abreu's 2.4 bWAR in 2019, and considering that each WAR point is worth approximately $7.7 million on the free agent market per FanGraphs, Abreu proved an impressive $2.48 million value even given his 2019 salary of $16 million. Of course, that surplus value doesn't even include his off-the-field value to the team.

What does the future have in store?

Abreu is now a free agent for the first time since donning a White Sox uniform. Looming on the immediate horizon is Zack Collins, who may spend some time at first base/DH this year. Gavin Sheets also may make his MLB debut at some point in 2020, as he'll begin the year in hitting-friendly Charlotte. Of course, Andrew Vaughn will be in the mix, but probably not until the 2021 season.

It seems likely that Abreu will re-sign with the White Sox for one or two more years. (The story already broke during the season that owner Jerry Reinsdorf essentially extended Abreu a lifetime contract.) Abreu turns 33 in April, and the market has been rapidly declining for aging first base/DH types over the past couple years — particularly those hitting from the right side. The White Sox could perhaps make Abreu a qualifying offer of $18 million, but don't expect the team to do that. For better or worse, the Sox organization is all about loyalty, and it's far more likely they'll try to negotiate a two-year, $28-30 million deal, with a third-year option; that would allow Abreu to finally see the White Sox succeed in the standings, something that hasn't happened since he's been with the White Sox.