Veteran Abreu out to prove he's not ready to retire
Hot bat in Winter League playoffs could provide momentum to win Phils bench spot
CLEARWATER, Fla. -- When Bobby Abreu took off his uniform after the game on Oct. 3, 2012, at Dodger Stadium, he didn't feel a sentimental tug, didn't pause to look around and soak it all in, didn't ponder the possibility that this might be the end.
Let's just say he was in the minority.
Abreu was 38 years old. He had been released by the Angels at the end of April, picked up by the Dodgers in part because they only had to pay a prorated share of the minimum salary. Abreu hadn't started since July 25 and had appeared in only 26 games since, batting .211 in a limited role. And, sure enough, after he went home to Venezuela, no Major League clubs called to offer a job.
Even though Abreu found himself without a team for the first time since he was 17 years old, he refused to believe that his distinguished career was over. He turned down a chance to play in Taiwan. Abreu passed on a couple of late offers for non-roster deals, understanding that since Spring Training was already well underway, he'd have to report directly to the Minor League complex. Until June, he didn't even pick up a bat.
It's too early to proclaim that Abreu has proven the doubters wrong. The Phillies, the team for which he had his greatest success, gave him a Minor League contract and a chance to show what he could do. That's all. And that's all he wanted.
"It never crossed my mind to retire. I always thought I would make a comeback, or at least have the opportunity to be in Spring Training," Abreu said, sitting in front of a locker at Bright House Field at the opposite end of the clubhouse from where the stars dress, the part of the room that will quickly empty out once the roster starts being pared down.
The truth is, Abreu probably has the inside track to make it out of camp as a left-handed bat off the bench. But general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. gave it to him straight when they talked on the phone before the Phils agreed to a deal that will pay $800,000 if he makes the team and calls for $15,000 a month if he's sent to Triple-A Lehigh Valley. That's quite a comedown for a player who made around $125 million in his career.
"I told him the situation would be that the only way we'd bring him in would be on a Minor League contract, in a situation where you could only be considered as a guy who would come off the bench, a guy that would be someone who would have to battle to make the club. No promises," Amaro said.
That's a harsh dose of reality for a guy who batted .303 in 8 1/2 seasons for Philadelphia, with 195 homers, 814 RBIs, 254 stolen bases, a .416 on base percentage and a .928 OPS. Again, though, Abreu was only looking for a chance.
Before Abreu could get even a look, though, he had to prove he deserved it. He did that by working hard to get ready for the Venezuelan Winter League. In the regular season, Abreu batted .322 in 50 games for the Leones del Caracas. He had a .416 on base percentage and an .877 OPS. In 16 playoff games, Abreu took it to another level -- .441 with eight homers and 26 RBI. His OPS was a ridiculous 1.466, and he had done everything he could. Abreu just had to hope somebody noticed.
Phillies special assistant of player personnel Jorge Velandia was already on the case. Velandia, who also serves as general manager for the Tiburones de La Guaira, notified Amaro that Abreu was playing well. The next step was to talk to Abreu to assess his attitude and demeanor.
"Right away, he looked like he was in great shape. He was playing pretty well," Velandia said. "The word on the street was that he was trying to come back. We played against Bobby many times. He actually killed us the whole time. He had a good year. There were a lot of teams that had interest in Bobby.
"We saw him for at least a month, two months. Then he went crazy during the playoffs. He was facing good pitching. It got a little more intense. He was better than the league at that point. During the playoffs, there are usually good players. He was definitely on a different level. He was hungry. The main concern for him is obviously his age [he turns 40 on March 11], but if you look at him, he looks like a kid still. In my opinion, when the games start, we'll see Bobby swinging the bat like he was swinging in the winter time."
New manager Ryne Sandberg also believes that success in Venezuela can translate into success during the upcoming regular season.
"When you're talking about a player of his caliber, I think you can look at what he's done in the past. The scouts were on him real well, and they said what he did resembled what he did when he was in his prime," Sandberg said. "You look at bat speed. You look at who he's facing. With the power numbers [in the playoffs] comes bat speed, so that's impressive. And know that I see him in person, I see why he was able to do that."
Would Abreu be taking batting practice and shagging flies with a big league team if he'd put up only so-so numbers in winter ball?
"Probably not," Abreu said with a smile. "But I always stay positive. Negative things never cross my mind, so I was always thinking it would go my way."
Amaro did more research. His former brother-in-law, Roberto Machado, is general manager of the Aguilas del Zulia, and his father also works for that club. Finally came the phone conversation between Amaro and Abreu. A deal was struck with agent Peter Greenberg that blended optimism and pragmatism.
Abreu can earn an additional $50,000 if he wins the National League Comeback Player of the Year Award, NL Gold Glove Award, NL Silver Slugger Award, NLCS MVP Award or makes the All-Star team, as well as $100,000 for winning the World Series MVP Award. He can also request his release if he's not on the Major League roster on March 26.
If Abreu makes the team, his role will be considerably different than what he's been used to during a career that saw him receive at least one MVP vote in seven years. He may fill in for Domonic Brown in left, give Marlon Byrd a break in right, pinch-hit, pinch-run.
But Abreu is back in Spring Training, back with an opportunity to demonstrate what he can do, back with the team that he'd someday like to retire with, back having fun. A few months ago, that was an almost unthinkable notion. To everybody but Abreu, that is.
Paul Hagen is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.