Sox On 35th

In appreciation of Jose Abreu’s White Sox career

Sox On 35th
  • Editor's Note: "In appreciation of Jose Abreu’s White Sox career" originally appeared on Sox on 35th. Nik Gaur of Sox On 35th will be a regular contributor to NBC Sports Chicago's White Sox coverage for the 2022 season. You can read more of their coverage at SoxOn35th.com, and follow them on Twitter at @SoxOn35th.

Longtime White Sox all-star and 2020 MVP first baseman José Abreu is a free agent once again. While nothing is certain, all indications are that a return to Chicago is far from a guarantee.

Abreu, who plans to get a White Sox logo tattooed on his body in the near future, holds a palpable love, respect, and admiration for the White Sox organization, players, and fans. While such a bond may be common for players that spend nine or more years with one franchise, Abreu's bond with the White Sox transcends norms and surely makes all parties involved wish that his White Sox tenure included more on-field success.

Instead, Abreu enters free agency with only two playoff victories across his nine years in Chicago. While he would likely be interested in a reunion, he is also at a stage in his career where winning figures to be his top priority. Meanwhile, White Sox general manager Rick Hahn recently admitted that a potential re-signing of Abreu would have significant implications — or, "a ripple effect" — on the rest of the roster. The tenor of Abreu's free agency differs greatly from 2019 when both he and White Sox owner Jerry Reinsdorf seemed completely unwilling to entertain the idea of Abreu playing for another team.

If José Abreu's White Sox career has indeed come to such an unceremonious conclusion, overshadowed by the disappointing 2022 team and search for a new manager, the very least we can do as fans is appreciate the contributions of one of the most passionate and consistently productive players to ever put on a White Sox uniform.

 

José Abreu by the numbers

Across his nine seasons with the White Sox, José Abreu hit .292/.354/.506 with 243 home runs, 863 runs batted in, an .860 OPS, 133 wRC+, and a .364 wOBA. He amassed 31.9 bWAR and 27.7 fWAR, both of which are 19th-highest in franchise history. Overall, Abreu appeared in 1,270 games and registered 5,506 plate appearances.

Abreu's ranks among franchise history (with a 1,500 plate appearance minimum for rate stats) include:

  • Games: 14th (1,270)
  • Home runs: 3rd (243)
  • Runs batted in: 5th (863)
  • Runs batted in: 5th (863)
  • Doubles: 4th (303)
  • Walks: 12th (386)
  • Hit-by-pitches: 1st (117)
  • Batting average: 20th (.292)
  • Slugging percentage: 6th (.506)
  • wRC+: 8th (133)

Beyond his statistics, his on-field value is also notable considering the context of White Sox first base lineage. White Sox fans are not a spoiled bunch by any means, but for the last 32 years, the starting first baseman for the White Sox has generally been one of Frank Thomas, Paul Konerko, or Abreu. Following Konerko's retirement, Abreu slotted in and carried on the recent legacy of outstanding White Sox first basemen with ease.

José Abreu year-by-year

2014: After signing a six-year, $68 million contract out of Cuba, Abreu joined the White Sox without any time in the minor leagues and was an immediate superstar. He hit .317/.383/.581 with 36 home runs and 107 runs batted in. His incredible 2014 season led to him winning Rookie of the Year, being named an all-star, receiving a Silver Slugger Award, and even finishing fourth in MVP voting. Abreu's 167 wRC+ in 2014 is the fifth-highest total by a rookie in MLB history.

2015-2016: Abreu followed up his otherworldly rookie season with two good-to-great years at the plate. He averaged 28 home runs and 100 runs batted in per season between 2015 and 2016, hitting a very solid .292/.350/.485 for two White Sox teams that were trying to contend at the time.

2017: The White Sox entered a full rebuild after the 2016 season. Rather than request a trade to a contender or become apathetic, Abreu took pride in becoming a leader and example for the team's up-and-coming prospects. His 2017 season was his best since 2014, and even to date is probably his most underrated campaign.

Abreu did not receive many accolades (aside from a few down-ballot MVP votes) in 2017 given the team's rebuilding status, but he hit .304/.354/.552 with a .906 OPS, 33 home runs, 102 runs batted in, and 139 wRC+. Abreu's power numbers were mostly the same, but his career-high 43 doubles made 2017 one of his best all-around seasons.

2018: For the first time in his career, José Abreu did not register 100 RBIs in a season, as he missed most of the last two months of the season due to testicular torsion and hospitalization from an ingrown hair on his right leg. This was the only season in Abreu's career where he missed significant time due to injuries. However, he still made the all-star team and won his second Silver Slugger Award in what was a down year for American League first basemen.

 

2019: In a contract year, Abreu bounced back to hit .284/.330/.503 with 33 home runs and 123 runs batted in. He also made his third all-star team. This was an interesting year for White Sox fans, as Andrew Vaughn had been drafted during the season, and Abreu's future was a popular topic of debate. I wrote an article during the season advocating for the team to re-sign him, which is fun to look back on now (especially considering Abreu's defense at first base improved to the point where a move to designated hitter was never really necessary).

2020: Abreu and the White Sox agreed on a three-year, $50 million contract in the winter of 2019. José Abreu's 2020 season, albeit in a pandemic-shortened schedule, will never be forgotten by White Sox fans. Abreu led the team to the playoffs for the first time since 2008 by hitting .317/.370/.617 with a .987 OPS and 164 wRC+. He won his third Silver Slugger Award and his first AL MVP in part due to his astounding 60 RBIs in 60 games. Then, in his first taste of the playoffs, Abreu hit a home run to help lead the team to a 4-1 victory in the first game against Oakland.

2021: While the 2021 division-winning White Sox offense may ultimately be remembered for the ridiculous hot streaks from players such as Yasmani Grandal, Luis Robert, or Yermin Mercedes, Abreu was a stabilizing force all season. He hit .261/.351/.481 for an .831 OPS, 125 wRC+, and added 30 home runs with 117 RBIs. Abreu's 61 walks in 2021 were a career-high at the time, which was meaningful considering it was one of the few seasons in which Abreu had sufficient support in the lineup. Clearly, he noticed, and was more patient at the plate as a result. Abreu also got hit by 22 pitches in 2021, which was by far the highest mark for any year of his career.

2022: The 2022 White Sox offense might not be adequately reviewable for a few more years. Did the entire roster lose its ability to hit for power, or was there some issue with coaching, approaches at the plate, etc.? Despite the least powerful season of his career, Abreu still had a great year in 2022. He struck out less than ever before and hit .304/.378/.446 for an .824 OPS and 138 wRC+. In another contract year, Abreu once again proved that he has more left in the tank.

José Abreu's off-field value

Abreu's journey to the White Sox was far from easy. After all, he had to quite literally eat his fake passport while on a flight to Miami in 2013. But despite all the adversity, Abreu not only continued the White Sox legacy of outstanding Cuban baseball players but served as a leader for the entire team and gained widespread respect across the league.

José Abreu is absolutely beloved by White Sox fans, not just due to his on-field production but also for his leadership, conspicuous desire to win, and off-field work, such as his charity that helps Chicago-area children with special needs. The level of respect White Sox fans hold for Abreu is quite rare for a player who does not have a "signature moment" in a playoff game, but it speaks to Abreu's likability and performance.

 

(Context: José Abreu is emotional after learning that he was won the 2020 AL MVP Award)

By the end of his career with the team, it would probably be fair to say that a contingent of White Sox fans began to underappreciate Abreu. Debates about his performance would constantly turn into arguments about the validity of the RBI statistic in the modern game, even though Abreu's greatness went far beyond his RBI totals. His second contract with the White Sox drew scrutiny, but Abreu won MVP in the first year of it and was a very good player in the last two seasons. While even for me, it became easy to focus on his flaws at times, Abreu is one of the greatest players in franchise history. No White Sox player should ever wear the number 79 again.

Finally, Abreu surely means quite a lot to individual White Sox fans. Nine years is a long time, and Abreu never had a single bad season with the team. He was a constant source of entertainment during summers. He is one of the rare athletes who is as admirable off the field as he is on it. He played on some truly awful White Sox teams but always played with exceptional effort and tremendous respect for the team and its fans.

José Abreu's future

I was 14 when the White Sox signed Abreu. I bought his jersey that winter, despite him not having played a single game in America, because he just felt that destined to be great. When he debuted, I was a freshman in high school. Sox On 35th would not exist for another three years.

I am now 23, a college graduate with a job, and Sox On 35th is concluding its sixth season covering the White Sox. Throughout all this time, José Abreu has remained a tremendous baseball player, and he still should have at least a couple of years of productivity left.

It would be foolish to completely rule the White Sox out of the Abreu sweepstakes, given the mutual respect involved. However, both Abreu and the organization have been uncharacteristically diplomatic and unmotivated when commenting on their future. Granted, this could just be the polar opposite of the 2019 negotiating tactics in an attempt to increase leverage for both sides.

Nevertheless, things just feel different this time, and if Abreu does return, the White Sox would be all but forced to trade Andrew Vaughn. While Abreu is the better player, this is unlikely to last much longer — if at all — and Vaughn's trade value is significantly lower than one might think since he has been playing out of position and had a sharp decline in production toward the end of each of the last two seasons.

 

Abreu deserves to play for an organization with legitimate World Series aspirations in 2023. The Astros should need a first baseman. The Yankees might if Anthony Rizzo opts out of his contract. The Padres could be an option too if you view them as true contenders. Wherever Abreu ends up signing, it is difficult to think of a player more deserving of postseason success.

The White Sox failed to put a championship-caliber team around Abreu during his nine years. However, the failures of the organization should be remembered as exactly that — the organization's failures. Abreu did his part, and then some. He deserves to be remembered as a franchise legend. Even without significant postseason success, Abreu's on-field production alone warrants retiring his number.

Combined with his leadership and off-field value, Abreu should be revered in Chicago for the rest of his life.

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