Surprise, Surprise: José Abreu and the White Sox Stay Together

Yesterday, the White Sox did something they haven’t done before. They signed Yasmani Grandal to the largest contract in team history, and I’m a huge fan of that move. Today, they did something they have done before — commit to José Abreu. He signed a three-year, $50 million contract extension replacing the qualifying offer he had accepted, which will keep him with the team through 2022.

If you’re determined to see this deal through a cold, analytical lens, you might wonder whether it makes sense. $50 million is a lot for a first baseman, after all, and it’s particularly a lot for a first baseman who finished 14th in WAR at the position in 2019 and who will be 35 by the end of the extension.

If you’re feeling uncharitable, you might impugn Chicago’s process. Abreu was an All Star, received MVP votes, and led the AL in RBI. In a previous era, no one would question this deal (assuming the money were era-adjusted). It’s tempting to say that the Sox are stuck in the past, the front office equivalent of a Hall of Fame ballot blank save for Jeter — that signing Grandal was a rare moment of timeliness from a broken clock.

But to me, that’s a poor reading of this story. José Abreu and the White Sox aren’t a random player and team. Their relationship is complex, and painting this as solely a pay-for-production decision simply doesn’t capture the totality of what this deal means. From a pure numbers standpoint, the deal may not stand up — but that’s not what this contract is all about.

Abreu signed with the White Sox in 2013 after defecting from Cuba. He was an established star in the Serie Nacional; a league MVP who shared the island’s single-season home run record. The six year, $68 million contract he signed wasn’t that of an intriguing prospect, but a sure thing; it remains the second-largest contract given out to a Cuban player immediately after their defection, narrowly behind Rusney Castillo’s ill-fated seven-year pact with Boston.

He was a lynchpin of the team from the first day he appeared in the majors. He missed time in 2018 due to injury, but he has cracked 600 PA in every other season, with a batting line at least 15% better than league average every year. He’s been the 26th-best hitter in the majors over that time frame, and exactly three players have more plate appearances with a better batting line: Anthony Rizzo, José Altuve, and Paul Goldschmidt.

Just as importantly, Abreu has been a strong mentor to younger Cuban players on the White Sox. When Yoán Moncada joined the big league team, Abreu literally picked him up from the airport. They were both born in Cienfuegos and had known each other since childhood. Abreu helped Moncada adjust to the big leagues, and Moncada raved about his wisdom.

When the team signed Luis Robert, he cited the team’s strong Cuban tradition and the comfort of working with Abreu as key factors in his decision to sign with them. Abreu didn’t disappoint, working with Robert in spring training and generally making him more comfortable with a difficult transition.

Eloy Jiménez, another young slugger, had this to say: “For me, it’s been like a father. He gives me advice, he always tries to help me. And when you find people like that, you don’t know how to explain how great of people they are.” Lucas Giolito sang the same tune: “He can make everyone feel at home because he’s been around the organization for a long, long time. He’s super positive. … I’ve never seen him get like super mad or overthink anything. He keeps it very, very simple. And I think that’s very good for our team.”

To hear the players tell it, Abreu is the beating heart of this team. And while it would be foolish to take testimonials from friends as a quantitative measure of value, it would be equally foolish to assume that these soft skills hold no value whatsoever. Abreu has been the clubhouse leader and elder statesman for the bumper crop of young White Sox players, putting up face-of-the-franchise numbers during the lean years of non-contention. Now he’ll be there as the team presumably takes a step forward over the next few years.

Of course, just because this extension wasn’t solely focused on Abreu’s on-field contributions doesn’t mean we can’t consider that side of it. And there, the picture is decidedly cloudy. The White Sox have a place to put Abreu now, but their farm system is awash with players who profile as 1B/DH types, and some of them will be knocking on the door of the majors soon.

Jimenez plays left field, but it’s not hard to imagine a world where he’s an everyday DH who occasionally dons a glove. Grandal figures to receive playing time at first and DH to save wear on his knees and give playing time to James McCann. Andrew Vaughn, their first-round draft pick, is a polished college first baseman who tore through three levels of the minors in 2019. Zack Collins, who can theoretically catch but is likely headed for first, mashed in Triple-A and is probably ready for the majors.

That doesn’t mean the signing makes no baseball sense, though. Abreu is no slouch with the bat. Steamer projects him for the third-best batting line on the team next year, behind only Jiménez and Grandal. It would be asinine to suggest that he doesn’t make the team better today, even if you’re the most devout prospect hound on earth.

In fact, Abreu’s 2019 looked better under the surface than it did if you only look at his wRC+. He posted the highest hard-hit rate of his career, and he barreled up batted balls at the best rate since 2015, the year Statcast data starts. If you’re a believer in xwOBA, he’s been metronomically consistent since 2016:

Abreu’s Production Over Time
Year wOBA xwOBA
2015 0.361 0.339
2016 0.349 0.356
2017 0.377 0.368
2018 0.337 0.358
2019 0.349 0.361

He’s also done this despite never truly optimizing his batted ball mix. He’s always had groundball tendencies, even in his spectacular 2014, and he pulled fewer fly balls and line drives than league average. It would be worth sacrificing elsewhere to tap into his pull-side power; he has produced a .935 wOBA on pulled balls in the air in his career, against only .559 on other air balls. Pull a few more flies, and he might ascend towards his former greatness.

It’s fair to be skeptical of these numbers. If he were going to suddenly become a dead pull hitter, he probably would have done it by now. Time wounds all heels, and Abreu can’t afford any wounds. If this decision came purely down to the maximization of on-field production relative to cost, it would be a strange one. And clearly, those factors matter. Abreu’s mentorship wouldn’t merit a $50 million contract if he were producing like Daniel Palka, who the team DFA’d to make room for Grandal.

But it’s good that baseball isn’t a monolith of surplus value. Abreu is important to the White Sox, and the team has made no secret of it. It won’t be easy to navigate the roster in upcoming years, and this extension doesn’t make it any easier. But in exchange, the team showed its players that it values the atmosphere Abreu helped create, that it thinks of its players as more than simply widgets.

This probably isn’t a move that will tip the team’s playoff odds decisively upward. But those moves can still happen — signing Grandal yesterday was one of those, and they’ve been linked to Zack Wheeler in early free agency discussions. This is a move that’s about a team and player who want to stay together. Abreu intimated as much this season, and now it’s happening. In an offseason full of sign-stealing and stadium closing, it’s good to see something else for a change.

Ben is a writer at FanGraphs. He can be found on Twitter @_Ben_Clemens.

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Jorge Fabregasmember
3 years ago

Allow me to be the first of 400 people to point out that Eloy isn’t Cuban.

3 years ago
Reply to  Ben Clemens

(” … isn’t Cuban.”) – A very minor mistake, and a very good story – thanks. Wondered, though, if opposing hurlers might try to pitch AROUND Abreu, like they did, for years, with Votto?

3 years ago
Reply to  Jorge Fabregas

He still speaks Spanish as his first language and that is very important to a young player in a foreign country. When Abreu was offered the qualifying offer I heard all the same things about it being an overpay for an aging first baseman, but it was clear that the White Sox measure people by more than their stat line and there was an extension just waiting to be signed which seemed like a solid move by a team that is trying to move into contention now and not wait and hope that Vaughn is the answer. Let me make it clear that I am dismayed by the response that comes from the cognoscenti when the subject of RBI’s is mentioned. It is as if it is awful that Abreu, in this instance, just happened to lead the league in that archaic statistic. He should be drummed out of the league for daring to succeed at the basic goal of the game which is to score runs. I do not have easy access to the correct information, such as % of runs driven in in each situation but there is such a thing as clutch, David Ortiz, and not clutch, Giancarlo Stanton. How many times did Abreu get the man in from 3rd with less than 2 outs. What is his % of driving in runners in scoring position with 2 outs are more important than raw numbers and with contact becoming more difficult these are the numbers that should be presented.

Swings Low
3 years ago
Reply to  bosoxforlife

You should try not to let it stress you out too much but RBI’s really don’t matter. I don’t think any cognoscenti (thanks for the new word) is going so far as to hold his RBI count last season against him, but you can stay on Jose Abreu’s page and see why people don’t care about RBI’s.
Abreu was a much better hitter in his first four seasons with the Sox than he was this past season, yet he never exceeded 107 RBI’s. RBI’s certainly are not a completely useless stat, but to hold it out there as a strong indicator of a player’s ability at the plate is nonsense. Especially considering RBI’s can be very misleading, as was the case with Abreu in 2019.

Cool Lester Smooth
3 years ago
Reply to  bosoxforlife

A good way to measure that is RE24 – wRAA.

It adds a little over 2 wins to Abreu’s career total, but last year it was about a win and a half.