White Sox believe Abreu deal will pay dividends
White Sox general manager Rick Hahn was the one introducing new first baseman Jose Abreu Tuesday morning at U.S. Cellular Field, but only after vice president Kenny Williams traveled to the Dominican Republic to watch the 6-foot-3, 255-pounder play in two showcase games on Sept. 30-Oct. 1.
Along with Marco Paddy, the Sox' special assistant to the GM, Williams initially wasn't quite sure what to expect. That quickly changed before Abreu's first game.
"I've seen a lot of great ones over my 32 years of professional baseball, and this is the first time that I've wanted to stand up and give a standing ovation after a batting practice," Williams gushed during a one-on-one interview at the Cell. "Even the preparation leading up to batting practice, where I watched him hitting off the tee in the cage, that preparation, that focus, that attention to detail ... before he's going to take batting practice, which is generally just an exhibition in bat speed and power and guys trying to crank it, he took a batting practice like he was going to play in a major-league game that night."
Like Abreu, in a sense, Williams was just getting warmed up.
"During the batting practice, it was a low maintenance, soft, quiet load of his hands," Williams said. "And his lower half and his hands worked as well as I've seen a right-handed hitter's hands work down through the ball, and the ball explodes off his bat, but in a line-drive manner. When he hits the tape-measure shots, it's almost as thought he missed hitting a line drive and now he's got backspin on the ball. At one point I asked Marco, 'How far is that left-field fence out there, 250 (feet)?' Because the ball was going so far beyond the fence, I was like, 'It can't be 330, 340.' (Paddy) said, 'No, it's 340.'"
Arriving at the Cell in a limo Tuesday and donning uniform No. 79 -- his mother's choice -- Abreu filled out every inch of his gray suit and quietly spoke to reporters through an interpreter, White Sox director of public relations Lou Hernandez.
And after officially agreeing to the largest contract in franchise history, $68 million over six years, Abreu said there is much more to his offensive game than mammoth home runs.
"So much has been said about my power and the home runs I hit," Abreu said. "But more than hitting home runs, when I'm at the plate my mindset is to make sure I do what's needed for the team, whatever is needed at that moment. Whatever the team needs of me, that's my strategy of play. I'm not thinking of home runs more than anything. It's just delivering what I'm asked to do."
Abreu delivered big-time in his native Cuba, hitting .392 with 133 home runs, 337 RBI, 311 runs scored and 278 walks in 346 games over the last four seasons, including the playoffs. He played for Cienfuegos in Serie Nacional (Cuban National Series), Cuba's top-level league. Abreu debuted with the team in 2004 at the age of 17.
Under terms of his White Sox contract, the 26-year-old Abreu gets a $10 million signing bonus and salaries of $7 million in 2014-15, $10 million in 2016, $10.5 million in '17, $11.5 million in '18 and $12 million in '19.
However, Abreu has the right to opt out of his contract when he is first eligible for salary arbitration, which should be after the 2016 season.
According to Barry Praver, Abreu's agent, the Sox would still have control of his contract but he could potentially make more money through the arbitration process.
Praver said there was intense interest in Abreu, with teams like the Rangers, Rockies, Astros, Giants and Red Sox lined up with contracts.
"We had as many as eight clubs involved," Praver said. "They were involved, not just kicking tires. They were all seriously involved. At the end, there were like five finalists so to speak. When they all submitted their final offers, they were all in the ($) 60 millions. Don't ask me how the White Sox got to where they got to; that was their internal process. But they did what they had to do to sign the player."
Now that he is signed, Abreu and the Sox are limiting their focus to the upcoming season.
"I think when we look at an offense that finished last in the league in runs scored, last in the league in walks, on-base percentage, and we were at the bottom of pitches per plate appearance in terms of working the count, those are obviously areas we need to improve," Hahn said. "We made no secret we're seeking to improve. Jose brings some of that ability to the team. I just think it's important, even as he referenced, there's been so much made of his power. It's special power, it really is. It's a large part of his appeal given the scarcity of his power.
"What he brings isn't limited to that. He's a professional hitter. He knows how to make adjustments. He's a guy that in a given situation can hit behind a guy or take a walk or whatever the situation calls for. He's a much more well-rounded hitter than perhaps some of the earlier reports have in."