Jose Abreu’s Greatness, and the Greatness We Missed

A couple of weeks ago, White Sox manager Tony LaRussa called first baseman José Abreu “one of the great players in major league history.” That’s certainly a strong statement — probably too strong, but that’s fine. There’s nothing wrong with a manager praising his players.

Abreu’s season has been defined by streaks, but he’s getting hot down the stretch for Chicago, and when he’s hot, he’s an aircraft carrier in terms of the ability to put the team on his back if needed.

Jose Abreu: 2021 Season By Month
March/April .213 .296 .394
May .333 .422 .631
June .182 .265 .307
July .255 .351 .489
August .324 .378 .639

As he heats up, he’s now on track to lead the American League in RBIs for the third consecutive season, and while that statistic is exceptionally lineup dependent, it still speaks to his value in the middle of the order, as well as his exceptional durability and consistency. His career wRC+ is 133, and his lowest mark in a season is 114, back in 2018. He’s had off years, but only in the context of his own career; he’s never approached anything that could be called bad. Most of his ability comes from his massive strength, as he ranks in the 90th-plus percentile among major leaguers in most any advanced power measurement stat. And while he’s a bit of a free swinger, he barrels balls up at an elite rate, and they tend to have more oomph on them than when your average player squares a ball up.

Is he one of the greatest players in history? He is not, but he’s certainly high on my Cuban-What-Could-Have-Been list. While most baseball fans have only been aware of Abreu since his 2014 rookie season, for many inside the game, last year’s MVP campaign was a long time coming.

My first full year with the Astros was 2013, and at the big league level, it was a miserable one. The team went 51–111 and finished the year on a 15-game losing streak. The final game of the season was a heartbreaker — a 14-inning loss to the Yankees that wasted seven shutout innings from Erik Bedard.

I didn’t watch that game on television but on my phone at a hotel bar in Santo Domingo, there to see a player who the front office thought could help kickstart Houston’s turnaround. Two weeks earlier, I had been forwarded an email and told simply, “I’d like you to go to this.” The original message was from Abreu’s representatives, letting all 30 teams know that he had been cleared by OFAC (the Office of Foreign Assets Control), which was required for all Cubans who wanted to play professionally in the United States, and would be conducting a private workout on September 30 at the Yankees’ facility in nearby Boca Chica. Like nearly every franchise in baseball, the Astros sent a contingent of evaluators to the event.

Abreu was already well known in the amateur world. More often than not, he was the best hitter on the field when playing with Cuba’s national team. At home, he made his debut in the Industrial League at 16 years old and quickly became the stuff of legend. During his final four seasons with Cienfuegos, he hit .395/.542/.807 and was treated by opposing teams like prime Barry Bonds, earning 105 intentional walks in 319 games. And with his 27th birthday still four months away, he was just entering his prime. On paper, and per older scouting reports, he looked like a plug-and-play–middle-of-the-order first baseman; this workout would help teams figure out just how good he was, with the bidding set to begin in only two weeks.

The workout taking place at the Yankees’ facility was no surprise. There’s a certain field there that is set up just right for hitters to take advantage of the tropical winds that tend to blow out toward the fences, and even more so during the final months of the year. Abreu’s power was already massive; the setting would aggrandize it.

The turnout was nothing short of massive, likely in the hundreds. Most teams sent multiple evaluators from the United States, including several GMs and team presidents, and a majority had several Latin American scouts in attendance as well. A lot of Dominican-based scouts were there, too — not because they were specifically assigned to go, but simply because they wanted to be at one of the more hyped events on the island in recent memory.

Abreu came out with a group of lesser-known Cuban players also looking for an opportunity to come stateside. His size was immediately jarring; he looked more like an NFL linebacker than a baseball player. The players warmed up and stretched as scouts and executives jockeyed for position at a field not designed for any kind of attendance, and certainly not one this big; a group of evaluators one-tenth the size of this one would still be standing room only.

Batting practice began, and it was a visual and auditory treat. There was a storage shed with a roof made of corrugated metal just beyond centerfield. It didn’t take long for Abreu to reach it, and with great regularity. For the most part, those of us watching sat in silence. The only sounds were an exceptionally loud crack of the bat, followed by a jarring, percussive bang that would make Todd Trainer smile as the ball smacked into the roof of that shed sitting some 400-plus feet away.

Crack . . . . Bang!
Crack . . . . Bang!
Crack . . . . Bang!

The only thing I heard other than bat hitting ball or ball hitting metal roof was the team executive sitting next to me, who emitted a low-toned giggle with every swing.

Following BP, Abreu ran through some infield drills, taking grounders at first base (nothing great, but fine) and third (adorable, but no), followed by a sim-game setting during which he showed some swing-and-miss but also sent some more balls pinging off the roof of the shed, for which I was now starting to feel sorry.

Nobody walked away from the event out on Abreu; the question was how far in each team would be. The Astros’ contingent, myself included, recommended an aggressive pursuit, and we ended up in the final three of the teams vying for his services. The White Sox won out in the end based on the length of the contract offered — six years — as most of that final group were in the same range in terms of AAV.

The rest, as they say, is history, but in the case of Abreu, it’s the alternate history that interests me more. As noted, he was 27 during his rookie season with Chicago but had been a star at the highest level in Cuba since the time he was 18; he may have lost as many as six MLB seasons. Give him those years here, and it’s likely he’d have already passed, or at least be closing in on, 2,000 hits and 400 home runs. (He’s at 1,235 and 257, respectively, as of Monday.) Dan Szymborski would be writing pieces about his chances to reach even bigger milestones, and Jay Jaffe would be chiming in on the JAWS numbers and career totals that would land him firmly in Cooperstown. I’ve always felt that way about Abreu, and I still feel similarly about the other Cuban first baseman the Astros signed nearly three years later: Yuli Gurriel.

The reality of the world and international politics kept us from getting six more years of Abreu and more than a decade’s worth of seasons from Gurriel, and it likely cost them Hall of Fame chances that fall somewhere between significant and likely. Maybe LaRussa wasn’t so wrong after all.

Kevin Goldstein is a National Writer at FanGraphs.

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2 years ago

Tony LaRussa. Just…. No. I’m not going to make a DUI joke. But I will say instead that things Tony LaRussa says are only understandable if we accept that he is a complete idiot in regards to baseball history, unless he’s completely blitzed all the time.

Jose Abreu is fine. He seems cool. Tony LaRussa, not fine, not cool.

2 years ago
Reply to  Josh

This is an article about Jose Abreu, not LaRussa, or a sad attempt at a tasteless joke.

I am not a LaRussa fan but this comment is unfounded. I have a friend who is a Cubs insider. Loves bashing on TLR. He texted me on 6/22, 5:43 PM CDT.
Him: “We have deep depth on this roster” – Tony LaRussa
Me: Yogi said that!
Him: Didn’t know that. Now it’s funny instead of a senile old man.

Maybe you can have a similar reaction. LaRussa knows more about baseball history in his 3 month old pinky nail clipping then you or I do in our entire beings put together. And I know actually know a ton. Your comment seems very out of touch here. Whatever you were going for, it didn’t land.

Smiling Politely
2 years ago
Reply to  dodgerbleu

Agreed. Accusing this of whitewashing TLR is so, so far off the mark (and I still want him out of the game).

2 years ago
Reply to  Josh

Shut up.