On paper, it seemed to make sense: A 31-year-old Jose Abreu was coming off a massively productive season and has two more years left of team control, meaning he isn’t guaranteed to be around when the White Sox expect this rebuilding process to produce a playoff contender. So why not trade him?
Back in November, that was rumored to be a possibility. FanRag Sports’ Jon Heyman reported the White Sox were in “active” talks with the Boston Red Sox, who were one of the four finalists to sign Abreu as a free agent back in 2014. The thought of adding another elite prospect to the team’s bursting-at-the-seams farm system was tantalizing, wasn't it?
It also was never a realistic possibility.
“There was clearly speculation that he conceivably could have been moved this offseason,” general manager Rick Hahn said. “Part of the reason that he wasn’t is that we do put a large value on what he does in the clubhouse, how he represents himself and the organization, what he does for our young players — the way he goes about his business is the epitome of a White Sox player. That probably leads to us valuing him a little more highly than other organizations who haven’t had the pleasure of having him, which makes it that much more difficult to line up on finding value on a trade.”
Abreu’s on-field production speaks for itself. He slugged 33 home runs last year with a .906 OPS and has had a triple-digit RBI total every year of his career. He has the 13th-most home runs since 2014 (124) and has the 13th-highest slugging percentage (.524) in the same timespan, putting him just outside being one baseball’s elite sluggers — which is still a pretty good place to be.
But the real reason why the White Sox didn’t trade him is what Hahn touched on in his quote above. Abreu has blossomed in his four-year career into a pillar of the White Sox clubhouse, someone who’s taken hotshot prospect Yoan Moncada under his wing and leads by example on a team that’s shipped plenty of its veterans away over the last 15 months.
“He’s the face of the organization,” outfielder Avisail Garcia said.
“His standards as a player, as a human being, have been an example for me,” Moncada said through an interpreter. “I’ve been trying, always, to follow him as an example, as the guy that I want to be.”
Hahn and manager Rick Renteria know this wave of young talent won’t arrive at 35th and Shields as a collectively polished product. There’s a lot of development that still have to happen after a player graduates to the majors, whether it’s in how to handle the grind of a 162-game season or all the media attention that comes with a hot streak or a slump. Having Abreu around, they figure, can be beneficial to those younger guys as they learn what it takes to be a major league player.
“His actions speak for themselves,” Renteria said. “It also crosses an understanding to all the players, whether you’re Latin or American or whoever you are. They see how he goes about doing his business. Is it important? Yes. I think he’s establishing an understanding for a lot of the younger players what it is to go about to prepare for a daily grind and play in the big leagues.”
Abreu’s experience has a slightly more tangible benefit than him being a good clubhouse guy, too. Hitting coach Todd Steverson said he’s an excellent conduit for his message to young players, especially given all the success he’s had mashing the ball for the last four years.
“Young kids being able to see how he goes about it structure-wise lets them know, if I want to be at that level at some point, or somewhere close to that level, it’s going to take me doing certain things,” Steverson said. “He kind of would be like a dad, almost: ‘What are you doing, make sure you do that right.’ It’s good on my end to have somebody able to say hey, be more accurate, be more definitive in what you’re trying to do. It’s not always coming from myself or (assistant hitting coach Greg Sparks).
“It holds a lot of weight when what I say and what he says mirror each other.”
It’s worth noting, though, that the White Sox hardly were in a desperate situation to move Abreu this winter given they still have him under control for two more years. He’s not a move-him-or-lose-him guy, nor does he fit the profile of the cheap, young, successful players traded away for huge hauls since the end of the 2016 season (Chris Sale, Adam Eaton, Jose Quintana). If the White Sox were going to deal Abreu now, they'd have to be blown away by a package of prospects.
That doesn’t mean a team couldn’t swoop in and make Hahn an offer he can’t refuse. But the benefits to keeping Abreu just might out-weigh the benefits to trading him at this point.
“I feel I have a responsibility with this organization and a responsibility with the manager and all the people involved in this organization,” Abreu said through an interpreter. “And that responsibility is to step up and set an example for all the guys, especially for the young guys. I know that my English is not so good right now, but I’m trying to get better in that aspect. I’m pretty sure I’m going to be better this year in how I can influence them in the clubhouse. That’s one of my goals, I started doing it last year and I think this year I’ll be more able to do it with more confidence.”