For all the question marks surrounding the upcoming season, the White Sox two veteran sluggers are as close to sure things as you're going to get.
Thanks to the consistent production Jose Abreu and Edwin Encarnacion have put up over the course of their big league careers, the White Sox know what they’re going to get out of the middle of their suddenly more powerful lineup.
Obviously, everyone on the South Side knows what to expect from Abreu. Despite a couple freak injuries in 2018 that derailed his streak of 25-homer and 100-RBI seasons since coming to the majors, Abreu bounced right back in 2019 with some of the best production of his career, winning the American League RBI crown and coming just a few homers shy of matching his career high.
Throw in the consistent presence he provides in the clubhouse as a model for the team’s young players, and you’ve got the most reliable bat in the lineup and arguably the most important person on the roster.
“Everybody knows the kind of person that he is. Everybody knows he’s our leader. He’s our mentor,” Yoan Moncada said through team interpreter Billy Russo. “He’s been on this team, in the big leagues for a long time now and he’s always trying to lead by example. He’s always trying to take care of the young guys, but actually he’s always trying to take care of everybody around the team.
“Everybody follows him. I follow him. The other guys follow him because he’s an example for all of us. That’s something that really has stuck with us about Pito.”
Moncada’s evaluation of his countryman and locker buddy ought to explain plenty about why the White Sox handed Abreu a new three-year contract this winter. What he’s done with the bat in a White Sox uniform should be enough explanation, as well.
But some worrywarts out there point to Abreu’s advancing age and dips in certain statistical areas in recent seasons as causes for alarm. After reaching base at a .359 clip in his first four seasons, he did so at a .328 mark over the last two seasons. His 152 strikeouts in 2019 were a career high. His OPS-plus, where 100 is league average, went from 142 in his first four seasons (when he was 42 percent better than the average big league hitter) to 119 the last two years.
The 33-year-old Abreu, though, has no designs on this being some sort of three-year victory lap.
“My career is still on. I'm still playing. I haven't had any thoughts about retirement or anything,” he said, through Russo. “I still want to win. I still want to compete.
“I was talking about this with my mom, saying I still feel that love for the game. If for whatever reason I reach a moment in the future in my career when I don't feel that love, then OK, I will know that it's time for retirement. But if I don't get to that point, there's going to be plenty of me for you guys (the media) to cover.”
Need proof of production well after 30? Look no further than the White Sox new designated hitter. The 37-year-old Encarnacion has blasted 255 home runs since his 30th birthday, with at least 32 home runs in each of the last eight seasons. After the White Sox racked up one of the lowest home run totals in baseball last season, Encarnacion is a big part of the injection of thump into the 2020 batting order.
With 34 dingers in just 109 games last season with the Seattle Mariners and New York Yankees, he ought to bring plenty in a full slate of games, health permitting, for the White Sox as they try to chase down their first playoff berth in more than a decade.
“Edwin Encarnacion, that's the missing piece,” Abreu said. “I think that's the piece in our lineup that we were missing. I'm just excited to start playing along with him. I'm just excited to have him here.
“We all know the kind of player he is. We all know what he's capable of doing on the field with his bat. That's a big addition for us.”
But much like Abreu has been the perfect blend of on-field production and off-field mentorship for these White Sox, Encarnacion will bring his veteran expertise to the South Side, too.
Like Dallas Keuchel and Yasmani Grandal, Encarnacion is a veteran of many a playoff run, and he’s part of the heaping dose of winning experience Rick Hahn’s front office added during the offseason.
He’s been to the last five postseasons, and he’s already seeing similarities.
“We have the talent on this team,” Encarnacion said. “This team makes me remember the team that we had in 2015 with the Blue Jays. A lot of young talents, a few veteran guys and we put everything together and this team is going to be right.
“If you're going to win, we've got to be together like a team. Pick up your teammates. That's why you have to stay together. If your teammate does something wrong, you're going to feel it and you're going to want to do something to help them out.
“This team has the talent to compete in the division and win.”
Certainly that’s the goal. With Encarnacion’s thunder accompanied by the power upgrades brought in with Grandal, Nomar Mazara and Luis Robert, that goal looks all the more realistic.
While all sorts of question marks swirl around the upcoming season — whether it’s Dylan Cease and Reynaldo Lopez being able to put their 2019 struggles behind them, Moncada and Tim Anderson being able to keep their good fortunes going or Robert and Nick Madrigal being able to make successful transitions to the big leagues — the middle of the lineup is no question.
Abreu and Encarnacion have shown they’ll produce. They’re consistent. And in a year where so many things have to go right to reach that ultimate goal, knowing these two guys will do their damage is a tremendous positive.