In the same year that Chicago White Sox first baseman Paul Konerko begins his farewell tour in major league baseball, Frank Thomas will be elected into the Hall of Fame as the league’s first designated hitter to be enshrined in Cooperstown. Whereas Konerko is best remembered for his contributions at first base and leading the White Sox to a World Series victory back in 2005, Frank “The Big Hurt” Thomas was a feared hitter with over 500 home runs and was named American League Most Valuable Player twice in his 16 seasons on the South Side. Since the early 90s both Thomas and Konerko made their primary playing position first base and few teams have seen a tandem of players dominate one position for such an extended period of time.
This season the White Sox will look to rookie first baseman Jose Dariel Abreu as being the next player to step into some big shoes and lead the team back to playoff form.
The 27 year-old, who defected from Cuba last summer, will play the 2014 season as a rookie, but he comes from a country where he is a proven superstar. Abreu’s career began when he was 16 and during his first five years playing in the Cuban Serie Nacional he was hitting .295 with a slugging percentage of .467. He would carry his dominant play into the 2009-2010 seasons where he had his best statistical season yet by hitting .399/.555/822 with 30 home runs, 76 RBI, and 74 walks. He was able to accomplish this astonishing batting line in only 89 games because a regulation Cuban Serie Nacional season is almost half as long as major league season.
The very next year Abreu was able to top his career numbers by batting .453/.597/.986 with 93 RBI and 33 home runs. Though this was accomplished in only 66 games due to a shoulder injury, these freak numbers would be marveled at if they were somehow accomplished in the MLB. During his ten year career in Cuba he batted .342 with 918 hits, 184 home runs, 593 RBI and OPS of 1.078. He also flirted with the Triple Crown numerous times and played in two World Baseball Classics wherein 2013 he batted .360 with three home runs in nine games.
He has certainly been impressive in a country that lives for baseball, but what has yet to be seen is will Abreu’s production translate to a full major league season? With fellow countrymen Yasiel Puig and Yoenis Cespedes making big names for themselves in their already short professional careers, Abreu just might be best and most pure Cuban hitter of the trio.
He comes to a White Sox organization that that has been lacking in offensive production over the last few seasons. The teamed signed Adam Dunn back in 2011 in the hopes they could bring back some of the production Frank Thomas once brought at the designated hitter position. Since signing with the team Dunn has not hit for an average above .219 and has averaged 196 strikeouts over three seasons.
Standing at 6’3” and weighing 255 pounds, Abreu has an enormous frame that can produce great power at the plate. In his short time with the White Sox, which has primarily been spent at their winter facilities in Glendale, Arizona, he has shown a tremendous work ethic that has made a profound first impression on general manager Rick Hahn.
“He’s been everything we have hoped for and more,” Hahn said. “A large part of the appeal to us for signing Jose was his professionalism and how serious he was about his craft. Whether he is in the cage or in pre-workouts or on the field, he has a purpose, and you can tell this is a guy who takes what he does very seriously and wants to maximize his talent.”
In his debut with the team on Saturday, Abreu went 0-2 at the plate, but there was more to his four innings of play that could be accurately captured by a stat sheet. In those two plate appearances he saw 11 total pitches and ripped a line drive to left field. He showed great patience at the plate and demonstrated that he was not a raw talent against major league pitching. He showed that he could make the most out of his plate appearances and there is reason to believe he will draw a considerable amount of walks this season because of his poise in the batters box. Two at-bats is small percentage to work off of, but the White Sox were satisfied with what they saw in the 5-0 loss to the Dodgers.
“In my case I just want to play every day,” Abreu said through interpreter Lino Diaz. “I want to get as much live pitching as I can so I can get back into it. Playing today felt really good. We’re going to get as many at-bats as we can so I’m ready for the season.
“I don’t really have an exact amount of at-bats to be ready,” he said. “When the manager asks me to be out there, I want as many at-bats as I can prior to the season so I can be ready. It’s a matter of seeing the ball when you’re out there. I haven’t seen live pitching in a while.”
Already Abreu is showing his maturity at the plate and a desire to improve as a player. This should be an encouraging sign of things to come. The young first baseman has his family to thank for his tremendous focus in spring training and his relocation to America.
“For me, I had just one thought: I wanted to provide my mom, sister, my kid, my dad with things I couldn’t provide them in Cuba,” said Abreu, who is from Cienfuegos. “Especially, I thank mom for my life, so now it’s the time for me to work for her. So I keep on working every day, and I don’t get tired of it.
“The biggest home run I’ve ever hit is still in Cuba. That’s my son Dariel Eduardo,”
He certainly appears to be grounded as a ball player and as a family man. This is in stark comparison to the younger Yasiel Puig, who made a reputation for himself last season as being an immature and often times tantalizing player. With age comes maturity and with more experience we will see Abreu putting together an impressive rookie season.
Abreu fits in quite well with the White Sox, who have embraced the rookie and already given him the nicknames “Yogi” and “Oso,” which is Spanish for bear because of his monstrous size. It also helps the young player make the transition to American baseball by being teammates with three other Cuban players on the roster including Alexei Ramirez and Dayan Vicideo.
“I’m thankful for both of them,” he said. “Every time I have a question, I feel I can ask a fellow teammate and countryman and I know they will give me an honest answer. Yes, they have been helpful.”
The White Sox improved tremendously this off-season by signing Abreu, but with a six-year deal worth $68 million, Abreu needs to rack up the hits for this deal to have a big effect on the team. In addition to Abreu, Chicago signed 25-year old center fielder Adam Eaton and 22-year old Matt Davidson in a three team deal with the Diamondbacks. Both players remain young and raw talents, but they bring youth to a veteran ball club. Outside of these three acquisitions, the team fields an average offensive lineup with Adam Dunn continuing a steady decline and Alexei Ramirez showing only glimpses of greatness in recent years.
The Abreu signing isn’t just important for this season, but is important for the organization moving forward. It’s a sign the team is both willing to invest money on big-name prospects as well as move forward after next season when they will be without the leadership and bat of Konerko. But make no mistake in thinking Abreu’s inexperience will take a few seasons to work out. He could easily lead the team in all offensive categories this season and will be a serious contender for Rookie of the Year.
Chicago fans have been fortunate to watch great players at first base for the past 20 years. Abreu will look to continue the tradition of being a career long first baseman in Chicago that makes the transition to designated hitter later in his career. With a professional presence beyond his years and an unmatched work ethic, White Sox fans should be looking forward to Abreu making his home in Chicago and the middle of the lineup for years to come.
This guy is going to be exciting to watch.