It was Jose Abreu's worst season in the major leagues. And he still started the All-Star Game and won a Silver Slugger.
The White Sox have a decision to make at some point, though not necessarily this offseason, on what to do with Abreu in the long term. His on-field production isn't a question. His role as an off-field mentor isn't a question. But when Opening Day 2020 rolls around, he'll be 33 years old. Does that "align" — to borrow a word used very often by Rick Hahn at last week's GM Meetings — with the White Sox long-term plans?
Abreu's entering the final season of his current contract coming off a year defined as much by freak injuries and a prolonged slump as by the accolades he received in spite of those things. For the first time as a big leaguer, he finished a season without hitting at least 25 homers and racking up at least 100 RBIs. Only playing in 128 games, he posted career lows in most stat categories, with his 36 doubles, the second most in his career, a notable exception. His .473 slugging percentage was only the second lowest of his five-year major league career.
But if the awards were any indication — though it should be added there was a dearth of productive first basemen in the American League last season — he still has the ability to be one of the game's best at his position. His 162-game average over the course of the past five seasons: a .295/.353/.516 slash line with 32 home runs and 107 RBIs. Three times in five seasons, Abreu has received MVP votes, finishing as high as fourth during his Rookie of the Year season in 2014.
And on top of all those numbers, Abreu has earned consistent praise for his role off the field. He's been an omnipresent mentor to Yoan Moncada, who's not even two years removed from being the No. 1 prospect in baseball, with the two Cubans' lockers right next to each other in the White Sox clubhouse. And Abreu is touted as an example to all the team's young players, who can look to him as a model for how to go about one's business and prepare on a daily basis.
So the value is obvious. But in order to make a decision on Abreu, the White Sox have to figure out when their planned contention window is going to open. Significant injuries to a host of their highly touted prospects — most notably the elbow injury that forced Michael Kopech into Tommy John surgery — has muddied the waters when it comes to predicting when this wave of minor league talent will was ashore on the South Side.
If that year is soon, if it's still 2020, then having a 33-year-old Abreu in the middle of the order doesn't seem like a bad thing at all. But in order to make that happen, the White Sox will need to give him a contract extension at some point before this time next year, or they'll have to give him a new contract if he were to reach the free-agent market. If the year when the contention window opens is much past 2020, how old is too old to help the White Sox make a championship run? When does the dropoff in production that comes with most aging players arrive?
The White Sox talk highly of Abreu, giving no indication they plan to move on from the guy they spent lavishly on after the 2013 season. And for his part, Abreu continues to talk glowingly about the White Sox and remains committed to saying that he hopes to be in Chicago for the foreseeable future.
"Everybody knows that 2019 is going to be the last season of my current contract, but I try not to think about that because I am part of the White Sox and I believe that I’m going to be part of this organization for a very long time," he said through a translator during a Tuesday conference call with reporters. "That’s something that’s out of my hands right now because I have one season left on this current contract.
"But in case the next season is my last one, I’d like to thank all the White Sox organization and all the people who have been around me during my time on this team, especially the owner, Jerry (Reinsdorf). He has been an outstanding person to me. He’s one of the greatest people that I’ve met in this country.
"But I try not to think about that because I truly believe that I’m going to be part of this organization for a very long time. But we’ll see. I know that this is a business, and that’s the way you have to approach it."
That answer to a reporter's question covered all the bases, a masterclass in the public-relations friendly response. But Abreu does always come off as someone who wants to stick with this team. He knows what's going on in the minor league system and he knows how bright the White Sox future is.
And the White Sox know what Abreu can do. Their reported desire to trade Avisail Garcia might be an indication they're ready to move on from their older players, but Garcia and Abreu are vastly different cases, with Abreu far more productive on the field and more commonly discussed as an asset to the young players off it.
During the 2017 season, the decision on Abreu seemed an easy one for the White Sox: Keep this extraordinarily productive player and team leader around as long as you can. But injuries might have made that decision more difficult — and not the freak ones Abreu suffered during the season, but the ones suffered by prospects that might have changed the timeline of this whole thing, and therefore the "alignment" of Abreu and this team's bright future.