White Sox rookie Abreu even-keeled, confident
GLENDALE, Ariz. -- Jose Abreu is a one-man rescue party for the White Sox. Nobody really wants to say it, but that's what he is.
As he heads into his first Spring Training in the big leagues, everything seems right with Abreu, especially his attitude and approach.
"Talking to him, from when to show up for camp, to his nutrition, to his hitting regimen, everything he's trying to do is to maximize his ability,'' White Sox general manager Rick Hahn said Saturday. "He's by no means satisfied because he got the magnitude of a contract he was able to get. He wants to not only earn that money, but show it was a [darn-good] deal for the White Sox.''
On the other side of the Camelback Ranch complex, Yasiel Puig is getting ready for his second season with the Dodgers, who signed him to a seven-year, $42 million contract. That looks like a bargain based on Puig's impact in 2013, and if Abreu resurrects a team that went 63-99 a year ago, his six-year, $68 million contract would similarly represent a wise investment.
Not that Abreu is going to make any promises.
But Oakland's Yoenis Cespedes is an outspoken advocate for Abreu, pointing out that the 27-year-old Abreu was a better hitter than either he or Puig in Cuba. Peter Bjarkman, who has covered Cuban baseball for decades, rates Abreu and Frederich Cepeda as the island's top two hitters over the last decade.
Abreu knows that he has critics, too. He'll need a strong rookie season to answer the scouts who question his ability to handle a steady diet of 95-mph fastballs, and draws confidence from the success that Cespedes and Puig have had the last two seasons.
"I don't like to talk about what I'm going to do,'' Abreu said through interpreter Lino Diaz. "I like to look at my countrymen as an inspiration. There's no doubt [that we] have some very happy, very nice moments back in Cuba baseball. Now I think of them as an inspiration, to do a lot of things in my career.''
When Abreu defected from the Cuban national team during an August event in the Netherlands, he became a priority for the White Sox, who finished 2013 last in the American League in scoring. Hahn saw him as the one free agent who could best help his team avoid an extended downturn, and executive vice president Ken Williams confirmed that judgment after scouting him. The White Sox outbid a number of teams -- including the Red Sox, Rockies, Giants and Astros -- to land Abreu.
Abreu got to Arizona two weeks ago, and he won't leave for another six weeks. You could understand if he was anxious to put his first Spring Training behind him and get to Chicago for the start of the season, but he's not looking for shortcuts.
"It doesn't seem like it's too far to go before the season starts,'' Abreu said. "This time will go real quick.''
Abreu hit behind Puig in Cuba, when they were the Nos. 3-4 hitters for Cienfuegos over two memorable seasons, but carries himself differently than the kid Vin Scully named the "Wild Horse."
"Definitely,'' Abreu said. "Puig has a lot of energy. He plays with a lot of energy. The way I do it, I like to see things, reason through decisions, study things. I like to be calm at all times.''
Hahn watched Abreu firsthand during a mini-camp at Camelback Ranch in mid-January. He saw an approach that validated the White Sox investment.
"I saw a guy who was a professional hitter, [with] power to all fields,'' Hahn said. "He took his at-bats and his preparation for his at-bats, even in batting practice, very seriously. He was not there to horse around. He was there to get the most out of each of his rotations, every round.''
Abreu put up epic numbers in Cuba's Serie Nacional. He twice flirted with a Triple Crown in well-rounded displays of hitting worthy of Miguel Cabrera, and is confident that his success will translate to the AL.
Any doubt he had vanished when Cespedes arrived with a bang for Oakland in 2012, hitting .292 with 23 home runs and an .861 OPS as a rookie.
"When I saw Cespedes having success right away, I told my mother, 'I can do this. I can play over there on that level, too,'" Abreu said. "Cespedes did it. I can do it, too.''
Abreu is one of three first basemen on the White Sox roster. He projects to be the regular there, but the presence of Adam Dunn and Paul Konerko gives the White Sox the chance to ease him into duty if he doesn't have instant success in Spring Training.
Things have happened quickly for Abreu, who was able to avoid a long stay in the Dominican Republic or Mexico after defecting. His agents got his paperwork processed quickly, and here he is in Arizona, ready to pick up where he left off last summer in his native country.
"It's like being born again,'' Abreu said of his transition. "There is something surprising that happens every day. All I'm trying to do is take it one small step at a time, do the little things to be ready for the baseball season.''
And help his new team get back on its feet.
Phil Rogers is a columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.