Abreu would revitalize aging lineup on South Side
White Sox closing in on six-year deal for Cuban slugger with high-impact bat
There were no going-out-of-business signs at U.S. Cellular Field last season. But there was also no doubting that the White Sox were losing ground in a hurry, both in the American League Central and in Chicago's sports scene, where baseball fans on both sides of town deserved sympathy cards at the end of the 2013 season.
Well, guess what? They don't plan to stay down for long.
The White Sox are swinging for the fences after a 99-loss season in which attendance dipped.
There is only one free agent available this winter who seems capable of truly changing the direction of the franchise -- Cuban slugger Jose Abreu, who projects to be an All-Star-caliber run producer and maybe even an MVP candidate.
According to MLB.com's Jesse Sanchez and first reported by FOX Sports' Ken Rosenthal, the White Sox are close to terms on a six-year, $68 million contract with Abreu, winning a round of bidding against the Red Sox, Rangers, Astros, Marlins, Giants and perhaps others. The deal is pending his passing a physical.
Although Abreu is known only to the most serious of North American baseball fans, this would be a huge victory for general manager Rick Hahn, executive vice president Ken Williams and their top international assistant, Marco Paddy, and figures to energize an organization that traded away veterans Jake Peavy, Alex Rios, Matt Thornton and Jesse Crain midseason.
Abreu, who defected from Cuba in August, is only 26 and could be an absolute monster playing at the Cell, where the ball flies in the heat of the summer. He would join Avisail Garcia, acquired from Detroit in the three-team Peavy deal, to add young thump to a lineup that had become old and inconsistent, relying on the diminishing power from Adam Dunn and Paul Konerko, who will soon meet with Hahn to consider whether to retire or come back for one more season in 2014, possibly in a semi-platoon with Dunn in a first base-DH situation that would have Abreu as the one constant.
Abreu has put up mind-boggling statistics in Cuba's Serie Nacional, which suggests that he could top guys like Yoenis Cespedes and Yasiel Puig in home runs and RBIs once he settles into the Major Leagues.
"Big dude, strong guy,'' said White Sox right-hander Andre Rienzo, who faced Abreu while pitching for Brazil in the World Baseball Classic. "He's huge. Big and strong guy.''
Abreu was listed at 6-foot-2, 258 pounds in the Classic, when Rienzo twice retired him on flyouts in Cuba's victory over Brazil in Japan. Rienzo says Abreu is bigger than that, saying he looked to be two or three inches taller than him, and Rienzo's listed at 6-foot-3.
If Abreu can make the transition from Cuba to North America as smoothly as Cespedes and Puig -- who were also pursued by the White Sox -- he could help give Robin Ventura an answer for the Tigers' right-left combination of Miguel Cabrera and Prince Fielder.
Williams headed the White Sox delegation that went to the Dominican Republic to see Abreu in a tryout in early October. The White Sox came away convinced that he has the raw ability to overcome mechanical issues -- including a "double toe tap'' he uses as a timing mechanism for his swing -- that cause skeptics to say he'll have trouble adjusting to Major League pitching.
You may remember that there were plenty of doubters about Puig, who finished the regular season hitting .319 with 19 homers and a .925 OPS in 104 games for the Dodgers.
In Abreu's best season for Cienfuegos, he hit .448 with 37 home runs and 98 RBIs in 77 games. He batted .397 with another 37 homers in 92 games the following season, in 2011-12.
A formula designed by Baseball Prospectus' Clay Davenport translates stats from Serie Nacional to the Major Leagues. It pretty much nailed Cespedes' stats in his rookie season with Oakland. When you put Abreu's totals into that formula, you get a force of nature who is a cross between the Tigers' Cabrera and Barry Bonds in his prime.
Can Abreu really be that good?
Maybe not, but after the team that won the 2005 World Series grew old, White Sox fans have a reason to dream again. Hahn had told reporters that he had cleared enough money off his payroll to make a major signing this offseason but added a caveat -- he would only do it if he could add a guy who made sense for the long term.
Hahn has more work to do to the lineup that finished last in the AL with 598 runs -- the result of a .302 on-base percentage (14th in the league) and only 148 home runs (12th). There's a major hole at catcher and questions all around the infield.
Assuming the White Sox keep shortstop Alexei Ramirez and left fielder Dayan Viciedo, they could have three Cubans in the lineup. Abreu would certainly feel welcome, and White Sox fans should be happy to have him around.
There will be a pulse at the Cell next season, thanks to a quick strike by Hahn and his staff.
Phil Rogers is a columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.