White Sox

State of the White Sox: First base

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USA TODAY

State of the White Sox: First base

The 2019 season is over, and the White Sox — who have been focusing on the future for quite some time now — are faced with an important offseason, one that could set up a 2020 campaign with hopes of playoff contention.

With the postseason in swing and a little bit still before the hot stove starts cooking, let’s take a position-by-position look at where the White Sox stand, what they’re looking to accomplish this winter and what we expect to see in 2020 and beyond.

First up is first base.

What happened in 2019

Jose Abreu was Jose Abreu.

The face of the franchise, this generation’s “Mr. White Sox,” was his typically productive self. In fact, he had one of the more productive seasons of his six-year big league career, capturing the American League RBI crown with a career-best 123 runs driven in and coming three homers shy of a career best in that category, too, finishing with 33 dingers to lead the team.

Abreu went to his third All-Star Game, his second straight, and he could wind up with back-to-back Silver Sluggers when those get handed out later. Many fretted about dips in his rate stats, and his .284 average and .330 on-base percentage were the second lowest of his career, only ahead of the numbers from last year’s injury-shortened season. He set a new career high with 152 strikeouts, compared to 36 walks.

But in the end, Abreu was as productive as any White Sox player, and despite his 32 years of age, he showed no signs of dropping off from the consistently high level of production he displayed throughout his first half dozen seasons in the big leagues.

And all along the way he continued to serve as an off-the-field example to the team’s younger players, a leader and a role model, as well as a mentor to Yoan Moncada and Eloy Jimenez, the latter comparing him to a father earlier in the season. Abreu played in all but two of the White Sox 161 games, even with the plan to keep him off his feet by platooning him at first base and DH, which fell apart when Yonder Alonso disappointed.

What will happen this offseason

Abreu is slated to hit free agency for the first time since arriving on the South Side from Cuba ahead of the 2014 season.

While in a vacuum he would figure to have tons of suitors, given how productive he’s been, he’s spent the entire 2019 season talking about how much he wants to remain a part of the White Sox organization and how excited he is to see the long-awaited transition from rebuilding to contending. He’s gone as far as saying, repeatedly, that if the White Sox don’t re-sign him, he’ll sign himself to a contract and play here anyway.

The team has responded in kind, with Abreu revealing that team chairman Jerry Reinsdorf told him that he’ll never play in another uniform. That coupled with the unending comments from team brass and teammates about how much he means to the club, and it has long seemed a foregone conclusion that Abreu will be back with the White Sox for 2020.

General manager Rick Hahn had this to say during his end-of-season press conference Friday:

“I don’t think they are going to be teaching this in negotiation classes in college any time soon how this one is unfolding,” he said. “But my takeaway from all that is that there’s a strong desire on both sides to figure out a way to keep Jose in a White Sox uniform beyond this year.

“I don’t know quite the path it’s going to follow with Jose just yet, but more often than not when there’s that mutual desire to figure out a way to get something done, you wind up getting something done.”

In the wake of the season finale Sunday, Abreu reiterated that he believes he'll be playing for the White Sox next season.

What to expect for 2020 and beyond

Abreu sure seems to be the guy entrenched at first base in 2020. And if that’s the case, that’s nothing but good news for the White Sox, who can keep his bat in the middle of the lineup, surrounding him with Eloy Jimenez, Yoan Moncada, Tim Anderson and eventually Luis Robert — not to mention any bats they might add this winter. Abreu, Jimenez, Moncada and Anderson showed how dangerous a middle of the order they can be in September, combining to slash .353/.400/.612 with 21 home runs, 70 RBIs and 78 runs scored.

Hahn and his front office have a designated hitter on their offseason shopping list, so it’s unlikely we’ll see another attempt at a first base/DH timeshare like we did at the beginning of 2019. Still, Zack Collins has been talked of as a potential fill-in first baseman, which could allow Abreu to shift to DH some days. His mom doesn’t like it when he doesn’t play, though, so days off aren’t really an option.

We don’t know how long an eventual Abreu contract will run, so it’s hard to project too far out, but we do know that the White Sox spent the No. 3 pick in this summer’s draft on a first baseman. Andrew Vaughn was billed as one of the best all-around hitters in that draft class, as well as the best power bat. He only made it to Class A Winston-Salem by the end of last season, but given how another advanced college bat, Nick Madrigal, flew through the system in 2019, it’s not out of the question to suggest Vaughn’s big league debut might not be too far away.

But as for 2020, expect to see Abreu back at first base, doing his same old Jose Abreu thing: being a productive face of the franchise and leader for this White Sox team.

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Jose Abreu accepts qualifying offer, returns to White Sox on one-year deal

Jose Abreu accepts qualifying offer, returns to White Sox on one-year deal

SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. — It’s almost like Jose Abreu never left.

He was only a free agent for a week and a half, Abreu bringing his brief time away from the White Sox to an end Thursday, when he accepted the qualifying offer of a one-year deal with $17.8 million.

It’s not the multi-year contract that was expected, but MLB Network's Jon Heyman reported that the sides will continue to discuss a long-term pact. Still, the decision is a rare one, with Abreu becoming one of the few players ever to accept the qualifying offer. But he’ll get a nice payday for the 2020 season with a chance to do this whole free-agency thing again a year from now, if he chooses.

There was speculation that Abreu could accept the qualifying offer because of a potentially weak market for his services league-wide. If Abreu rejected the qualifying offer and things fell apart in discussing a multi-year deal with the White Sox, any team that signed him to a contract would have lost a draft pick in doing so. That deterred teams from signing free agents just in the last year, with Dallas Keuchel and Craig Kimbrel notably going unsigned until June.

Who knows if that — or just the desire to earn $17.8 million before a potential dip in his annual salary as he ages — had anything to do with Abreu’s decision, but it’s what was being speculated.

Regardless, the White Sox have their first baseman back, great news after he turned in one of the more productive seasons of his six-year big league career in 2019. Abreu led the American League with a career-best 123 RBIs and came three home runs shy of matching a career-high in that category, as well.

Abreu’s return always seemed a foregone conclusion, with the three-time All Star spending the entire 2019 season talking about how badly he wanted to remain on the South Side, going as far as to pledge that if the White Sox didn’t re-sign him, he’d sign himself to a contract and play here anyway.

The feeling was mutual, too, with general manager Rick Hahn, manager Rick Renteria and teammates praising Abreu as a model player and a mentor for the team’s young stars in the making. Eloy Jimenez said Abreu had been like a father during the rookie’s first season in the majors. Abreu revealed that team chairman Jerry Reinsdorf told him he’d never wear another uniform.

He’s as giddy about the team’s future as anyone and has cited the planned shift into contention as the reason he wants to stick around. Tim Anderson said “it’s only right” that Abreu return for 2020, a season in which the long-awaited transition out of rebuilding mode could take place. Hahn said earlier this season that it’s “very likely” Abreu would be around for the franchise’s planned good times.

Abreu’s been incredibly productive at the plate, though his off-the-field contributions are just as important, of course, and he’s been a mentor to players like Jimenez and Yoan Moncada as they’ve gotten their first taste of the major leagues. Luis Robert, the organization’s No. 1 prospect, figures to find his way under Abreu’s wing when he reaches the bigs next season.

Abreu has long seemed to be held in the same esteem as players who have their numbers retired and statues standing at Guaranteed Rate Field, earning the title of “Mr. White Sox” for this generation. It’s no surprise the White Sox are keeping him in that role moving forward as they plan to start seeing brighter days on the South Side.

After capturing the RBI crown, Abreu made his final prediction of the 2019 campaign, saying he did believe he'd be back with the White Sox for 2020. It might not have been terribly difficult to be prescient in this case, but he was nonetheless.

"Everybody knows my wishes and my desire to stay here," he said through team interpreter Billy Russo. "This is an organization I respect. This is an organization I really honor.

"I want to be here, and you know guys, I’ve been telling you that. Hopefully I’m going to be here."

Hope no longer. It might not have gone down exactly as was expected, but Abreu isn't going anywhere.

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Under what circumstances would the White Sox trade for Mookie Betts?

Under what circumstances would the White Sox trade for Mookie Betts?

SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. — Nothing seems to be off the table for the White Sox this winter.

But certain moves might be the centerpiece, while others might be hiding behind the salt shaker.

One of the biggest questions in baseball right now is what the Boston Red Sox are going to do with Mookie Betts. With the Red Sox aiming to get under the luxury tax — made more difficult when J.D. Martinez opted to stay in Boston for $23.75 million — speculation surrounding a trade of Betts and the $27.7 million he’s projected to receive through arbitration has increased.

Betts, too, it’s important to note, has just one year of club control remaining, and he seems set on heading to free agency at this time a year from now.

The White Sox hole in right field and quest to make a huge addition to their rebuilding project lines them up as a potentially interested party. While general manager Rick Hahn is waiting until his 2020 roster takes shape to set expectations for next season, the emergence of a young core presents the possibility that next season could be the one in which contention arrives on the South Side.

Adding Betts to the mix would certainly increase those chances.

Tuesday, Hahn seemed to leave the door open to acquiring a player like Betts, that is a player with just one year of club control remaining.

“Yeah, depending on the cost. It all comes down to price,” he said. “Like everybody, you want guys who are going to fit for the long term. We want to add a guy who's got a three-, four-, five-, six-year window of control where he's going to continue to improve and he's going to grow with this young core. Those guys aren't so easy to acquire. Usually you have to give a pretty premium piece like we did to get ours, or hit on them at the top of the draft like we've hopefully done.

“Short of that, we're going to look for guys who can certainly make you better in the short term but ideally have a little back-end control. If those don't exist, if we don't come across the right fit, then we'd be open to a one-year improvement knowing that with where we've put ourselves economically, we might have the ability to retain that player when they hit free agency.”

That sounds promising if you’re a member of the Betts-to-the-White Sox camp.

But there was a decidedly different tone Wednesday. Now, Hahn was never speaking about Betts specifically, nor was he ever asked about Betts specifically. But asked about dealing from a position of prospect strength for an impact talent who has just one year of club control left, the answer was significantly different than Tuesday’s.

“We made a commitment,” Hahn said, “that once we got ourselves in a position to be on the opposite end of these trades, the trades where you were giving up talent for short-term gain, that it was going to be important to us to still try to remain committed to the long term.

“When there's a guy like Chris Sale available, who (in 2016, when the White Sox traded him) had multiple years of control and you're ready to win, making that push makes all the sense in the world. If you're talking about a guy on a one-year basis, we're not to that point yet, and if we do get to that point, that's going to be a tough trigger to pull because we're trying to build something sustainable for an extended period of time.

“Quick hits don't necessarily do that. And certainly after three years of rebuilding, we've gotten ourselves in a very good position, but not in one where we're going to do something for immediate bang in 2020, necessarily, if we feel it compromises us for the long term.

“We've paid too big of a price to compromise where we're going to be at long term.”

Now, with that question posed by a Boston-based reporter, Hahn might have been addressing a more specific scenario. More likely is that he was reacting to the idea that the White Sox top-rated prospects would make them able to swing a deal for the elite of the elite. Thing is, the highest rated of those prospects aren’t really on the block, with Michael Kopech, Luis Robert, Nick Madrigal and Andrew Vaughn all solidly part of the team’s long-term plans.

So, is a Betts trade off the table? No. Is a Betts trade likely? Probably not. Would the White Sox trade for Betts? Probably if they only had to give up mid-tier prospects. What would it take to pry Betts away from the Red Sox? Probably more than mid-tier prospects.

Despite the seemingly contradictory nature of Hahn’s comments on Tuesday and Wednesday, he didn’t really flip-flop. A trade for one year of Betts isn’t out of the question, it's likely only going to come if the White Sox don’t have to give up too much. Maybe the Red Sox financial situation is dire enough that the prospect cost will be unusually low. Maybe the White Sox are presented with a rare opportunity to negotiate an extension.

But “depending on the cost” remains the key phrase not just in this situation but the entire White Sox offseason. That doesn’t mean they won’t spend or trade anyone. It simply means that they will only do so if there’s a long-term benefit. They’re trying to build a perennial contender, and the lengthy tenures of Robert and Madrigal and Vaughn are more valuable than one year of Betts.

In search of that long-term benefit, then, the free-agent market or a trade for a player with greater club control certainly seems a more likely route than a trade for Betts.

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