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After Jose Abreu says 'I would like to stay here forever,' Rick Hahn unsure what path White Sox will take

If Jose Abreu were in charge of the White Sox rebuild, he’d write his name in the heart of the 2020 batting order, and he’d do it in pen.

“I would like to stay here forever,” Abreu said before the White Sox played their final home game of the season Thursday night. “I would like to play with this team my whole career. But it is a business, and we have to accept and respect what’s in the future. I would like to stay here forever.”

Abreu hasn’t been shy about expressing his desire to be with the White Sox for the remainder of his career, and that’s an outcome that could still very well happen. But as the franchise enters a new phase of its rebuild — one moving on from the glitzy acquisitions of highly touted prospects and moving toward waiting for those players to develop into major league stars — there’s a big question mark surrounding the future of the team’s best hitter.

Abreu is under team control for the 2018 and 2019 seasons, but during his end-of-season press conference Thursday, general manager Rick Hahn seemed to have 2020 circled as the year his rebuilding White Sox begin competing for championships. Will Abreu be on that White Sox team?

The arguments for keeping Abreu past his contract’s expiration date are strong ones. He’s absolutely raked in his four seasons in the big leagues, posting four straight campaigns of 25 home runs and 100 RBIs. Plus, he’s become incredibly valuable to the team off the field, acting as a role model and mentor to the organization’s young Spanish-speaking players. And as his English improves, he’s assuming that role for all the team’s young players.

“(His off-the-field contributions bring) a lot of value, especially in the place in which we're at right now,” manager Rick Renteria said Thursday. “We find ourselves with a lot of young players that are just coming into the major league level. There is a learning curve about what they’re capable of doing between the lines, but then you have someone who’s been here now for four years, who’s maintained a really consistent working routine and has still continued to improve. I mean, this year might be one of his better years of his four years. … Offensively, he's been consistent as you can possibly be. Defensively, he took another step forward, a huge step forward.

“I think during ballgames, on top of that, when there’s a little action going on and they have to talk about something when they go to the meetings at the mound, he’s in there. He is initiating some of those talks. It’s really big to have those guys see someone take something seriously, still be relaxed, he’s also coming into his own himself. He’s becoming more and more relaxed as time goes on.”

But while the positives are many, there are understandable reasons the team might not want to keep a guy who’s been fantastic since putting on the uniform.

First off, Abreu turns 31 in January, and that means his age differs dramatically from that of all the other guys who project to be a part of that 2020 lineup. Abreu’s big league prime might not align with the White Sox championship window.

With that comes the possibility that the franchise could better position itself by moving Abreu in a trade, be it this offseason or next season or the offseason after that or the season after that. Hahn pulled the trigger on deals involving Chris Sale and Jose Quintana, younger guys who could have conceivably been a part of the team’s long-term future. But by moving them, he acquired minor league talent that could keep that championship window open longer.

And so while Hahn didn’t commit to any one direction involving Abreu — and Avisail Garcia, the younger hitter who’s also having a career year and is also under team control for the next two seasons — he laid out the exact situation, a tricky one but one that gives the White Sox options moving forward.

“Both Avi and Abreu are under control for the next two years, through 2019. I think even under the most optimistic projections of our ability to contend, certainly ’18 and ’19 don’t include the bulk of the time when we anticipate having a window open to us,” Hahn said. “So obviously with any player who isn’t controllable through the bulk of that window, we have to make an assessment.

“Is it in our best interest to extend that player, so they’re controllable through that period of time, or do we need to, as we did with other similar extremely talented and very valuable players in the game, explore the trade market and see if we’re more better served moving them in exchange for players who would be under control for that extended window of time we project to have for ourselves?

“They’re both special cases, and there are very strong arguments for them playing roles in 2020 and beyond. Abreu, obviously you can’t say enough about the season he had on the field, but his importance in the role he plays in our clubhouse. Avi is still very young in this game at age 26 and has had his breakout season, and you would have reason to believe that kind of performance is going to become the norm for him going forward. And those are considerations as we make that assessment. Are we better served trying to control these players through the bulk of what we project to be our window, or are we better served as an organization doing what we had to do with Chris, Adam (Eaton), Jose and others?”

You might read it as Hahn refusing to make a public commitment. Or you could read it is a question that doesn’t have one solid answer.

“What I tried to do is lay out the question at hand and the issue at hand, and we have to as a front office make that decision,” Hahn said. “And frankly, on both players, those decisions don’t have to be made this offseason. They’re both controllable through 2019. We have the luxury if we want to play it out another year, play it out another half a year to see if the performance continues, see if the trade market changes. As was the case when we sat here with Quintana a year ago. Yes, he was potentially a trade candidate, but the market didn’t respond the way we had anticipated, so we had to wait. It’s not me just dancing around or being cute. There isn’t a firm answer right now. We don’t know what the options are. One of them conceivably is extending, and we have to wait and see what that cost entails.”

The rebuilding White Sox are blessed with time if nothing else, which means Hahn doesn’t have to make these decisions right away. But at the same time, building a contender for 2020 takes on a much different shape depending on whether Abreu and Garcia are parts of that team.

While it’s unknown how many of the organization’s highly ranked prospects will end up panning out as major league stars, one of the rebuild’s largest remaining questions is what Hahn will do with his team’s best known quantity.

There’s just no telling when an answer will come or what answer that will be.

We do know, though, what Abreu wants: For your No. 79 White Sox jersey to remain relevant forever.