Will this be Jose Abreu's final season with the White Sox?
The closest thing this team has to a face of the franchise at the moment — at least until Eloy Jimenez arrives from the minor leagues — is slated to hit free agency at the conclusion of the 2019 campaign. His advancing age could mean he doesn't quite line up with the approaching wave of prospects planned to power this team to perennial contention. It's possible that these will be the final 162 games we see of Abreu in a White Sox uniform.
But the relationship between Abreu and the White Sox says something different.
It's never been a secret that the White Sox are gaga about Abreu. They gave him the biggest contract in franchise history. They watched him become one of the best hitters to ever call the South Side home and one of three players in baseball history to hit at least 25 homers and drive in at least 100 runs in each of his first four big league seasons. Chairman Jerry Reinsdorf presented Abreu with a special ring after he hit for the cycle in 2017.
They consistently rave about his off-the-field contributions, his status as a role model for young players and a leader in the clubhouse. They've placed Yoan Moncada right next to Abreu in the home clubhouse to help influence one of the most important young players in the organization. Luis Robert's locker is right next to Abreu's in the spring training clubhouse at Camelback Ranch.
And then there's Abreu's presence at the team's free-agent meeting with Manny Machado back in December. Would you want him there helping sell a potential decade-long addition if he was only going to be around for one more year?
Abreu, meanwhile, continues to rave about the White Sox, too, as good a pitchman for the ongoing rebuilding process as you'll find and someone who wants to be a part of that transition from rebuilding to contending.
"Being on the inside of this process, you know that there are a few teams who are doing (things) the right way, and I would like to stay with this organization forever," Abreu said through a team translator earlier this month in Arizona, echoing a sentiment he's never been shy about sharing. "But that is one of the things that I can’t control right now."
With all the mutual good feelings between the two, an extension doesn't seem at all unlikely, a new contract that would prevent Abreu from hitting the open market, keep him in black pinstripes to help lead the transition to contention and make him a White Sock forever.
General manager Rick Hahn doesn't seem to expect that to happen before the end of the season, though he also pointed out that that type of thing wouldn't be without precedent.
"Never say never," he said, "but more often than not, we handle our business in the offseason. There’s been exceptions over the years. ... Back when we did (Mark) Buehrle midseason, Jermaine Dye midseason. I’m guessing in spring training we probably said something to the effect of, ‘We’ll revisit it at the end of the season.’ So there are exceptions. But generally we prefer to do business in the offseason."
And so maybe this question could linger throughout the year. And it wouldn't be a surprise if the White Sox were still in wait-and-see mode throughout the campaign. In 2018, Abreu added more achievements to his major league resume — elected an All-Star Game starter and winning a Silver Slugger — but it was statistically the worst season of his career, with downturns in production thanks to an uncharacteristic midseason slump and a pair of freak injuries that prevented a statistical rebound late in the baseball calendar.
"Those were very difficult experiences," Abreu said. "I like to be on the field. I like to help this team compete and win games. And I couldn’t do anything. I couldn’t control that. But I learned and I appreciated that because that made me stronger. I appreciated more the things we do."
A better output than his .265/.325/.473 slash line, 22 homers and 78 RBIs is expected for 2019, with full health and a more consistent campaign more resembling his first four seasons. But all players have a point in their careers where their production begins to drop, and it's not uncommon for that point to come around the age Abreu is at now, 32. Depending on what kind of numbers Abreu puts up this season — or depending on what everyone else does to impact how far away the White Sox are from contention mode — the decision could be made to move on after six years, to truly put all the focus on the youngsters.
But, again, the way the White Sox feel about Abreu speaks volumes, and it might even forecast the decision they have ahead of them.
And what they've done this offseason might, too. In trading for Yonder Alonso, another first baseman who hasn't DH'd much during his nine-year major league career, Hahn talked about the benefits of playing Abreu at designated hitter and keeping him off his feet a little more regularly. While Abreu jokingly said, in English, in the early weeks of spring training that "I don’t like DH," he's OK with splitting time with Alonso at both positions. The White Sox trying to keep Abreu off his feet is a potential sign they're trying to extend his career as much they can, perhaps with an extension, or at least the idea of one, in mind.
We'll see how things play out, and we might need to wait until October before this situation is wrapped up. But like Hahn said, never say never when it comes to getting an early answer. Abreu could be one of the rare White Sox stars that breaks the mold.